Camera Arhiva is an archive of printed matter from Romania’s communist era

Launched by the team behind journal Kajet, the digital archive shows the richness and variety of Romanian graphic design as well as challenging the worrying trend of revisionist history sweeping Europe.

Date
5 December 2019
Reading Time
4 minute read

“A spectre is haunting Eastern Europe, the spectre of revisionist history,” write editors Petrică Mogoș and Laura Naum in the context section of their newly launched online archive, Camera Arhiva. The pair, who run the excellent Eastern Europe-focused art and culture platform Kajet, launched the new site to unearth and make accessible Romanian printed matter published between 1947 and 1989 – the country’s period under communism – and features the whole gamut of objects from books, newspapers (state-sanctioned and not), union-owned magazines, pamphlets, posters and exhibition catalogues and fiction. Although, the pair tell us, the purpose of the archive has been to present the printed objects for their content primarily, the site has also become a documentation of graphic design and photography styles of the time, showing the richness and variety of aesthetic sensibilities in Romania during this period.

But why is such an archive so essential now? The pair speak of a new type of “ideological combat” – the “memory wars” – where politicians are revising collective history for their own ends, whether that’s drumming up nationalism (something we’re seeing sweeping across Europe and especially at home in the UK) or delegitimising contrasting narratives. Although the pair do not claim to posses “the sterile (and anyway unattainable) cloak of omnipotent objectivity”, Camera Arhiva shows that there are very different versions of the past to the nationalistic ones. “By focusing on the printed matter of the everyday and on the material culture of the regular Romanian citizen, we are seeking to break the mundane apparatus of officialdom represented by governmental and privatised archives alike,’ the pair write.

Petrică and Laura began collecting Eastern European magazine and communist printed matter during their work for Kajet, hoarding leaflets, brochures, postcards and magazines that others saw no potential in. “These acts of throwing away and dismissing the past frustrated us considerably, so the project started out of a kind of disappointment with how contemporary society is dealing with our collective past,” the pair tell It’s Nice That. “Artefacts that have so much empirical potential, that are in themselves valuable resources, have become not just de-valorised or almost worthless from a market-based perspective, but also meaningless to its very owners and to a contemporary readership.” The digital platform that they have just launched seeks to show the contrary. “That we can learn a lot from our past and that there is a lot of significance and sense and value and lost meanings in what we have usually come to dismiss so easily,” they say.

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URSS Plans and Achievements, 1981

Of course, the process of putting together the archive has been a subjective one, where the pair have selected works that they feel are significant to the history of Romania and beyond. A particular favourite is Geta Brătescu’s work for Secolul 20 (The Twentieth Century), a remarkable art publication that was published on a monthly basis by the Writer’s Union of Socialist Romania and featured translations of writing by Anton Chekhov, Umberto Eco or Thomas Mannas with front covers by Bob Noorda, David Hockney, Constantin Brâncuși and Pablo Picasso. The pair have also managed to get their hands on rare exhibition catalogues and political brochures, whose “modes of communication are extremely innovative and modern”, as well as pop almanacs, like Femeia (The Woman), Flacăra (The Spark) and Anticipația (the Anticipation).  

The site, which has been designed by Alin Cincă, allows users to delve into these historical gems, browsing via hovering cover images or searching by subject, creator or theme. “We put great emphasis on the possibility to preview each publication’s cover, as we found that the act of hovering over each entry gives the visitors a very compelling overview of the entire archive,” say Petrică and Laura. “At the same time, just like the act of hoarding publications themselves, we decided that the grid should be composed of two main columns. In this way, you are always surrounded by both structure and abundance, as well as both factual information and a straightforward visual presentation.”

Of course, it’s impossible to characterise a diverse range of artists based on their nationality alone, but while working on the project the pair noticed common preoccupations among Romanian artists during this period – many of them incredibly prescient in terms of contemporary concerns. “A recurrent topic that we found most interesting is the future and the deeply intricate layers of meaning it comes with: from the promise of emancipation, accelerationism, the autonomist tradition and the relationship between human and technology, the space race, cyberculture, science fiction and robots and the cosmos, the role of information and knowledge in contemporaneity, but also ecological worries, sustainability, and direct references to climate change issues in an almost avant-garde take on the Anthropocene. Of course, this represented only a small niche, but it was a very energetic one.”

The next step for the pair is to continue expanding the archive, but also to try persuade institutional allies to get involved in the project “because we do need help in order to grow,” the duo says. “We would love to be able to exhibit some of the works that we have archived here in other places around the world, to popularise not just the archive itself, but the act of archiving as a method of keeping in touch with our inner selves.” A phenomenal resource for anyone interested in design and printed from this period, Camera Arhiva is a window into the past, but one that is incredibly relevant for the discourse of today.

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Almanah Anticipatia, 1985

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Almanah Anticipatia, 1985

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Almanah Exotica, 1989

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Almanah Femeia, 1971

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Almanah Femeia, 1976

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Almanah Flacara, 1973

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Almanah Turistic, 1970

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Catalogue Erno Kaznovski, 1983

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Guide Technical Museum

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Guide Technical Museum

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Guide Technical Museum

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Secolul 20, 1976

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Secolul 20, 1976

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Secolul 20, 1976

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About the Author

Laura Snoad

Laura is a London-based arts journalist that has been working for It’s Nice That on a freelance basis since 2016. She currently covers the news desk on a Friday for news editor Jenny. Send her all your big stories, projects and exhibitions. You can reach Laura directly on ls@itsnicethat.com or via our news channel at news@itsnicethat.com.

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