Register of Documents 1974- @ James Fuentes
Where the Berlin Wall once marked the frontier between the two opposed political
systems of Germany, Sony and Mercedes Benz have now constructed new
headquarters, celebrating their victory in the Cold War. Materially speaking, these
structures are light, soaring tensile monuments of steel and glass - the ideological
antithesis of the heavy opaque wall the buildings replaced.
Not far from here is Bernauer Straße, a street that bisected the border and gained
notoriety for escapes that began from windows of the apartment blocks in the East,
down to the road in the West. As Bernauer Straße belonged to the French sector of
West Berlin, the entrances and windows of the houses on the southern side were
successively bricked up by East German border guards and access to the roof was
blocked. On 22 August 1961, Ida Siekmann became the first fatal casualty at the
Berlin Wall: she died after jumping from her third floor apartment at no. 48.
The word ‘window’ is derived from both the Old Norse vindr (‘wind’) and auga
(‘eye’), and was first written as ‘windeye’ in early 13th-century literature. Other
short-lived antecedents included ‘eyehole’ and ‘eyedoor’. What these terms have in
common is a direct relationship to viewing as well as an implied obstacle. One can
imagine the surface area that the eye occupies as a removal of the body’s enclosure,
an opening in the skin that connects to the exterior of the shell.
As an architectural necessity, the window is a conflicting object charged with a
painful double task. It must act as a protector against objects invading the threshold
while also allow for a disappearance of its physical presence in order to give direct
visibility to its external situation. The window is a structure that negates the totality or
completeness of the façade’s desire towards complete and seamless enclosure.
In the early years of the Berlin Wall, before it became an impenetrable multi-layered
barrier, the windows of several East Berlin apartment blocks along Bernauer Straße
were portals for escape into capitalist Western Europe. Surely, the last thought of the
absconder would be to run the back of the hand across the diaphanous fenestration
and the simonized mullions of the window itself. For the absconder, the window only
exists in two dimensions.
From 1979, the samizdat journal Vokno (the Czech word for ‘window’) was the main
magazine of the cultural underground. Published by František Stárek and his friends,
its contributors included Members of the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly
Persecuted, such as Ivan Jirous and Dana Němcová. Vokno’s editors also published
books in a samizdat edition of the same name. Stárek, Jirous, Michal Hýbek and Jiří
Frič were soon arrested and subsequently given unconditional prison sentences in
1981. Following the release of Stárek in 1983 the magazine was revived and more
publications were produced, including an information bulletin entitled Voknoviny and
a ‘video-magazine’. In 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, Stárek was again arrested
and sentenced to two and a half years imprisonment. Nonetheless, Vokno continued to
be published, thus changing it from its samizdat roots into a regular publication.
Samizdat - Russian unofficial literature - has a long tradition. Since Ivan Fedorov,
founder of the first Russian printing press and erstwhile protégé of Ivan the Terrible,
was exiled from Moscow for his activities, Russian book-printing has been under the
close scrutiny of the authorities. Most major 19th-century writers, including Pushkin,
Gogol, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, had problems with publication.
‘He assiduously collects information for the samizdat journals, writes pseudonymous
articles for samizdat and spends weeks on end retyping the Chronicle and other
materials from Moscow in multiple copies. He is the quintessential samizdatchik.’1
Samizdat was a key form of dissident activity across the Soviet Bloc, applying most
commonly to individuals reproducing and disseminating censored publications by
hand. Inside the Soviet Union in particular, samizdat consisted of both politically and
non-politically significant ‘documents’ passed from hand to hand. Only a small
portion of the vast and variegated material has managed to find its way outside of
Soviet Borders. Under Stalin, early samizdat circulated among students as typed
copies of poems. These poems were always anonymous and the content sometimes
completely innocent. Yet the excitement of receiving samizdat in the USSR was
immeasurable; it became an activity. Suddenly people were reading works discretely
in public and writing tracts and open letters to the literary journals. Samizdat
literature burgeoned in an unprecedented manner. Hidden in briefcases and shopping
bags, ‘prison prose’ manuscripts flowed out across the country. One would only come
to know the author of a particular text when the person passing it on would say, under
their breath, ‘This is Marina Tsvetaeva.’ In one such case, a lengthy theoretical tract
was written on cigarette paper in microscopic lettering and was mailed out of
the ‘isolator’(a prison) in a matchbox.
For Vladimir Bukovsky, a leading member of Soviet dissidents, samizdat meant ‘I
write it myself, I edit it myself, I censor it myself, I publish it myself, I distribute it
myself, I sit in jail for it myself.’ The neologism ‘samizdat,’ shares with the Russian
words samolet (‘airplane’), samovar (a Russian type of table boiler), and samogon (a
type of home-made liquor). The root sam pertains to the self. All these words share a
reference to a substance being transmitted from point A to point B in a state of
containment. This point of enclosure embedded within a network of transmission
bears some similarities with ‘vacancy chains’ used by hermit crabs as they grow in
size; when a new, bigger shell becomes available, hermit crabs gather around it and
form a queue from largest to smallest body shape. When the largest crab moves into
the new shell, the second biggest crab moves into the newly vacated shell, thereby
making its previous shell available to the third crab, and so on. As each crab
transitions from one point to the next, each move symbolizes an alteration (or a
growth) in the crabs’ substance.
George Svirski, a student in 1970s USSR recounted, ‘When I hesitantly asked those
who had given me Marina Tsvetaeva’s Longing For My Native Land if I could
have something else, they handed me barely legible-probably sixth or seventh
copy of the verse of Tsvetaeva and Osip Mandlestam, without the poets’ names.’
That Svirski mentions the generation of the copy he received implies those who
circulated samizdat could read the physiognomy of the text object and thus discern
how many alterations of permutations it might have undergone. Russian avant garde
poets and visual artists such as Dmitry A. Prigov had a great understanding of the
ways in which their work circulated and generated a self-reflexive attitude towards
Book review, New York Times, 20 May 1979.
publication. His 18-ya Azbuka (kamen’ i krugi na vode; 18th Alphabet, The Stone and
Circles on the Water) comprises six carbon copies of which only the last is readable.
Prigov both stages the appearance of the text and plays on the fact that because of the
way of copying, many samizdat typoscripts are extremely hard to read.
For those involved with the circulation of samizdat texts, it was a dispersed collection.
Yet in regards to the viewpoint of the Soviet government who instituted such extreme
censorship policy, samizdat was seen as a symptom. It was a point of ‘suspension’
within the universal structuring principal, whose aim was to administer a definitive
regulated set of information to the citizens. The progressive liberals in the West also
considered samizdat as a symptom, not because the content of the texts ran counter to
ideology but because there was no way to account for all of the texts in circulation.
Contrary to the universal structuring principal of indexical information in the West,
the dispersed nature of samizdat represented a kind of non-reason inherent in reason
itself. What was not then realized in the West was that, for Soviet dissidents, the
condition of impossibility of realizing the goal is simultaneously it’s condition of
The Register of Documents 1974- is a running register of samizdat material published
in the Soviet Bloc from 1974 onwards that exists in the New York Public Library.
Here, it exists as a non-circulating object; its covers are difficult to open and yield
some resistance. The pages are bound together due to years of atmospheric pressure
and non-use. Unlike archives, which typically house primary materials, the Register
merely points to and hopefully provides direction to where the primary materials may
be dispersed. Here, samizdat is exemplary of the turmoil inherent in all forms of
media: the dichotomy between the publicly circulating serialized verbatim document
(which bears witness to multiple conflicting versions, whether it be defaced coinage
currency, prints made from worn down blocks, miscopied manuscripts, bootlegged
versions of films, or successively compressed jpegs) and the private ontic
consumption of the imminent version. Because of the singularity of the historical
context that had motivated the emergence and spread of samizdat, this also
engendered the peculiar logic of its circulation. A significant share of samizdat
documents was smuggled out of the communist countries to the West, ending up in
capitalist institutions abroad which the Register most often points to.
The term ‘registration’ refers to the inscription of an artwork, or event into a symbolic
network or a ‘world.’ In quantum physics, the actual external reality of material
objects existing in space and time is constituted by the collapse of the ‘wave function’
that occurs when quantum process affects the level defined by the second law of
thermodynamics (irreversible temporality, etc.). In order to observe this collapse,
quantum physicists must resort to the metaphors of language: the collapse of the wave
function can occur only when a quantum event leaves a ‘mark’ or ‘scar’ in the
observation apparatus itself. In other words, the quantum event only occurs if it is
registered in some way. What is crucial here for an artwork or samizdat document is
its relation to externality or the viewer. The work fully becomes itself or realizes itself
only when its external surroundings take note of it; the register protects against
Like the registration of a quantum event, a work of art only exists for the artworld
once it has been published and distributed in the form of a magazine. The hard
objective reality of the work is registered in its representational form for the symbolic
network. The viewer unknowingly participates in the determination of the document;
his or her awareness of it affects and transforms the document itself. One cannot
maintain that a work, inclusive of its properties, exists out there on the Internet
irrespective of our consciousness of it. As with quantum physics, the modality and
direction of our search participates in the creation of the object for which we are
searching: if we decide to measure the position of a particle, it will ‘collapse’ from
potentiality into one actual set of spatial coordinates, while the same particle’s mass
will remain potentially undecided and vice versa.
Because many samizdat documents were hand copied and distributed in multiple
forms2 there exists multiple versions of the same document similar to the derivations
that occur during a game of Chinese Whispers. This phenomenon becomes of
special interest when considering its effects on the vast amounts of non-conformist
samizdat poetry. To return to the central conundrum of quantum physics: one cannot
fully perceive quantum phenomenon. To comprehend a quantum phenomenon is to
locate it within our meaningful understanding of reality. Quantum physics functions
autonomously yet as soon as one applies language and reason to its inner workings
one is swallowed up into the black hole of unreason.
‘When, at what precise point, does the collapse of the wave function occur? By
identifying it with the emergence of intersubjectively recognized meaning, we are
dealing here neither with automatic registration in a machine (a photo, for example)
nor with consciousness, but simply with language meaning.’3
This is also the enigma of samizdat as well as freely circulating digital files. The
moment that one of the permutations is singled out, observed and discussed, all of
the other versions are negated and avoid registration. As with wave particle duality,
where matter can demonstrate both particle and wave characteristics but not both
at the same time (that is, not within one and the same experimental arrangement),
at some point a decision must be made to observe one phenomenon or the other.
Since all of the circulating documents cannot be corralled and registered and viewed
as a whole, the work in its totality can only be discussed using language and this is
factored into the work’s functioning and existence. The file or document in it’s many
versions, like quantum reality, is the work of pure becoming, of an undetermined
potentiality which by means of observation, ‘collapses’ into the determined being of
its many permutations.
The techniques to reproduce the forbidden literature and periodicals varied from
making several copies of the content using carbon paper, either by hand or on a
typewriter, to printing on mainframe printers during night shifts, to printing the
books on semi-professional printing presses in larger quantities; magnitizdat was the
passing on of taped sound recordings and roentgenizdat were underground samizdat
recordings on x-ray film.
3 Slavoj Žižek, The indivisible remainder, London: Verso, 1996, p. 210.