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Miklós PETERNÁK, art historian, curator, 1956


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

In the summer of 1990, I received an invitation from the Hungarian University (then Academy) of Fine Arts to work out the concept of a new art program. My decision to accept the challenge has determined many things to date: I have worked there since, full time as of 1991. Prior to this, between 1981 and 1991, I didn’t have a job, except for temporary contracts and the occasional scholarships. So, in my everyday life, the pursuit of a so called “liberal profession” changed to “work.”  Otherwise, since 1978-79, I have engaged similar topics, essentially from similar aspects, independently from “the system.”


Through what channels and from what sources have you received your knowledge about this period?

If we are talking about 1989-90, as a result of my age, it can be said that I experienced the “period” and its “events” with an adult mind, directly (as opposed to indirectly through various media or sources).

Insofar as the question refers to how we found our bearings and gathered information in those days about what was happening in the world – including our immediate surroundings, in other words, Hungary – I can offer the following in the way of explanation.

I was born and raised in a small town and have lived in Budapest since 1976. I have clear memories of the difference in terms of the possibilities for gathering information and getting around in the countryside versus in the capital city. In spite of the fact that the revolution of the World Wide Web between 1989 and 1993 changed everything in this respect, there is still a fundamental difference today.

In pre-Internet times, including the period of the latest regime change in Central-Eastern Europe, information could be acquired through three main sources. The public media are (always, and in times of dictatorial regime, especially) manipulated, which means that the filtering out of real and valid information requires work and concentration. To use a simple example, one must learn that what is written in the periodical entitled Art is not necessarily art, or at least does not correspond to international trends, and what it presents as contemporary art may have already come and gone 50 years ago, and is, thus, history. It was primarily the information accessible through the so called “Second Public” that helped me realize this, as this was still simpler than the third channel: acquiring information that was publically accessible in parts of the world (the so called “free world,” or “west”) periodically closed off to us. The many personal encounters, discussions, illegal publications (smuggled into the country), as well as events and lectures advertised only in non-public circles all belonged in the domain of the “second public,” as did information on how news from the above mentioned third channel could be accessed on a regular basis. To use another simple example, with some research one could find out which periodicals were available from the library of the Museum of Fine Arts, which could be accessed through the Gorky Library or the library of the Research Institute of Art History, which materials were not restricted access at the library of the Parliament, which were open shelf materials in the University Library, and so on. (I must add that you couldn’t just walk into these institutions off the street; you needed to be in a legal relationship with at least one university or in possession of a permit for becoming a library member.) Of course, these were supplemented by books, magazines and information acquired abroad, the potential amount of which was largely determined not only by the size of one’s suitcase and the transportable weight limit, but also the 3-year (for some, even longer) travel restriction.

It was only at the end of the ‘80s that international television broadcasts were made available via satellite and suitable antennae. That is to say, in terms of news broadcasts, radio was the only possible source for decades.


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?

To only highlight one: the Romanian television revolution of December 1989 had an extraordinary impact on me. A concrete consequence of this was the conference that we organized in collaboration with others in the spring of 1990, of which I made a documentary (The Media Were With Us, with János Sugár, BBS production).


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 10 / 5 / 1 year(s)?

Today, I am of the same view as I was then: the democratic rule of law is better than the “existing system of socialism” or any dictatorship. Geographically, the virtualization of boundaries for me is permanently experiential: I cannot “get used to it” (to be more exact, I cannot forget the time when this was not so; prior to 1989 and later, before our accession to the European Union). So I am always happy about this, as I am today, whether it is me or others doing the travelling.

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