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Csaba NEMES, visual artist, 1966


Before endeavouring to answer the questions, I would like to make a few comments regarding the title.

Is the regime change (an) unfinished (program)?

In certain respects, yes, in other respects, not at all. Is it something that can be completed at all? In my opinion, it can never be fully completed.

The end of a system is perhaps brought on by the beginning of another. Socialism came to an end with the events of ’89. (Though it is true: we are still struggling with its shadows, bad habits, and reflections deeply ingrained in us. What’s more, we also carry the weight of even earlier political systems.)

In its efforts to bring the transitional period to an end, the current regime is making a grave mistake, because the system is made rigid and inflexible in the process. This “whatchamacallit” system, doomed to an end, can only be transcended.

The title aims (quite rightly, I think), to (retrospectively) characterize the events that took place in the past.

I would like to suggest a few adjectives: ill-matched, clumsy, faltering, sluggish, unconfident, thrifty, drowsy, moved, dewy-eyed, fragile, and inexperienced.

In contrast to the surrounding countries, the change in regime in Hungary took place peacefully. At the time, this was unanimously looked upon as a welcome development. Today, gazing back from a considerable distance, the question is whether this peaceful transition was only a way to delay having to face and work through some unavoidable conflicts (as well as the struggle to come up with future solutions).

I remember the use of the term “regime change” [in Hungarian, the word “rendszerváltás” translates as “change/shift of system”] became an issue, which to me sounded like the change was brought on by some self-regulating automatic process – like we were watching our own story unfolding from the outside. This too is telling, but I still don’t agree with it.

One thing is for sure: no one calls ’89 a revolution. People wanted a change; they believed that democracy would bring them the long-desired and envied Western prosperity. (Human rights and civil liberties probably excited a lot fewer people even then. As for the workings and consequences of capitalism, no one had an in-depth grasp of this yet.)

Today, the early motivations of the regime change have lost their validity to most.


How did the change in regime influence your professional activity and interest?

As I acquired my diploma from the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts in the year of the regime change, it was a time for endings in many respects.

I considered critiquing and recording the (political and economic) changes occurring in society to be much more of a priority than engaging in the self-serving questions of art in an insular cultural milieu. For these reasons, in my own praxis, I very consciously began to explore the changes and the resulting identity crisis. This process lasted until the end of the 90s, when, disillusioned by the lukewarm reception of socially critical art, I temporarily “signed out” of art discourse on social questions, which was not yet really functional at that time.


What part of your role in the regime change do you consider most important today?

My role in the transition occupies an ultrathin range.

I participated in the “student revolution” that was unfolding at the Academy. Although I counted myself among those in the progressive wing of the revolution, I did not take an active role in leadership, because, as a student about to grduate, this wouldn’t have made much sense.

At the same time, these events were of defining significance to me. It was a little bit like I suddenly found myself in The Strawberry Statement (a film that I watched more than once as a young high school student). Things took off with great momentum, but it soon became clear that the majority of students were of a much more conservative disposition, than I could identify with. In the interest of playing by democratic rules, we also had to take into account their ideas, which inadvertently slowed down the dynamics of real change.

At this juncture, we encountered a serious ethical question.

If we were to enforce our radical ideas, we had no choice but to do this by aggressive, almost dictatorial, means. If we were to choose the more humane, more democratic path, no deep, system-changing changes would result.

In the end, we chose the “bloodless” scenario, with its predictable consequences…

The slow, cumbersome modernization process in visual art education was perhaps partly a result of this. Still, I feel – in moving farther and farther away from this point in the past – that we made the right decision when we chose not to cross the line that would have led to the dissolution of social relationships. I am often reminded of how model-like this story is from the perspective of the regime change. The dilemmas of the transition can also be found in the events that took place at the Academy.


What cornerstone events or publications in art / politics / public life / the professional sphere do you remember, in which you participated, or to which you reacted in some way?

I participated in a few important political demonstrations, like many others who took at least a minimal interest in what kind of a country they wanted to live in. Like so many others, I attended Imre Nagy’s funeral in ’89, and I was also there on Kossuth Square, when György Cserhalmi recited the 12 points of the Hungarian Revolutionaries of 1848.

I was much more interested, however, in the developments taking place in art. In ’88 – thus still as a student – together with some friends, we organized an exhibition series entitled “Szelep” [Valve] at the Bercsényi Club. These events didn’t have a direct political character, provided that we don’t regard free self-organization – insofar as it is a conscious democratic act – as such. (The title was in part a reflection of this as well: “excess pressure” must leave through the valve, and art – as the mode of self-expression of a free society – is perhaps best suited for this process.)

I also produced some artwork in ’89, in collaboration with Zsolt Veress, which was more or less unintentionally political. The French Institute of Budapest organized an exhibition at the Barcsay Hall to celebrate the anniversary of the French Revolution. We were asked by the Institute and the General Secretary of the Academy to build an installation for the occasion.

We placed a guillotine on the facade above the narrow, tall entrance of the Academy, which meant that anyone going in or out of the building had to pass under it. We raised sandbag barricades on either side of the monumental entrance.

The management of the Academy were not thrilled about the decoration, to say the least. They felt that evoking the concepts of barricade and revolution was not a good idea. (We were only a few days away from Imre Nagy’s reburial, whereby the crowd would pass in front of the Academy.) As it was put by a member of the faculty who taught there at the time: It would not be fortunate, if the press used this polished blade (guillotine) for sharpening their pens…

Although it was not our intention to exhibit a political or provocative work, it was made such by historical context.


What sources and experiences have determined your view of the transitional period – both during and in retrospect? 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)?

It was in 2006 during the riots that it first occurred to me to ask the question: did the regime change, in fact, play the role that I perceived – or wished to perceive – at the time.

I had imagined Hungarian society to be so much more modern and enlightened. I thought that the events of ’89 had brought deep changes and a stable value system to our everyday lives. Instead, what became clear was that we could not avoid the kind of political battles and altercations that I was somewhat horrified to witness in the neighbouring countries in the early ‘90s. The path to fulfilment is no shorter when travelled from the “happiest barrack.”

This realization had a sobering effect, but it did not lead to a sense of hopelessness. Instead, it gave me the necessary push to return to my daily practice of socially critical art. There was also an important shift in emphasis in my attitude. While, in the ‘90s, I avoided tangible political content (I preferred to approach politics through engaging questions of economics, culture and media), today, my work is driven explicitly by my interest in politics.

My most bizarre feelings are associated with recent happenings. I feel like events are once again set on a path of acceleration, we can barely keep up. Seemingly stable consensuses disappear – a power has awakened and been put in motion to move forward according to its own logic.

The pulse of society shows excitation.

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