Borrowed Knowledge, Stefanos Tsivopoulos’ first solo show in the United States, represents a large step forward – characterized by a new openness – in the artist’s research for the last ten years on documents, archives and history. This research has lately focused on existing relationships between the visibility of the mass workforce and its representation in image-making that connotes each zeitgeist. It is not by chance that on this occasion the artist has decided to not produce any new images, understanding his role as an activator of critical thinking, surrounded by a crowd of images in the contemporary mediascape.
“What does it mean to create an image today?” – was one of the recurrent questions that accompanied Tsivopoulos in his digging into the constructions of imageries of the past. These included former Eastern European propaganda for the masses, in which his father found his own form of escapism, as in The Blind Image works, and the economic flourishing middle class, exploiting the labor connected to the intense mining activity in the Murcia region, as seen in the film Amnesialand. Both projects, that in this show collide in the same space, made use of documents in order to create a journey into historical paradigms that seem to be lost. These images have thus lost their sense of belonging to something. In the Kampf Krampf series, for instance, we see three images from the rhetorically constructed Soviet magazines’ iconography, cut out from their original context. They appear to float in the triptych they now belong to, making them readable as an entry point to a struggle to represent a socio-political episteme.
The disappearance in Amnesialand – which the voice-over in the film calls “The Event” – is the factual destruction of nearly all visual memory linked to that particular space and time in Spain, while in The Blind Image, this concept refers to the ideology that made possible a visual narrative bound to a specific idea of Socialism. Four collages – titled Socialismus I, II, III and IV – describe four different moments of the paradigm brought to life by an imagery built up on propaganda assumptions. Each little image is a cut-up from the library of the artist’s father, exiled to Czechoslovakia for his communist beliefs during the Greek military Junta of 1967-74. The four stages of Socialism seem to lead one to the other: the labor in the corn fields, the agricultural machines, the airplanes and aeronautics, and the Space race and its protagonists. Each cosmogony in pictures is directly connected and fuels the following, as subsequent diegetic spheres in which each one is in a cause and effect relationship with the other. Similarly, society and its workforce are key elements and motors of the pyramidal development that Socialism represented during the Cold War. This hermetic system of propaganda is put into dialogue, in the exhibition space, with a work that represents an epiphany of the standardization that any mass production thinking brings in itself. The Malling-Merton Rootstock Series, is composed of six cut-outs of a rootstock illustration, used all throughout the twentieth century to make apple production efficient. This series, found in a Soviet science book, refers to an agricultural method that was, and is, common on a global scale.
In these six pieces not only is the Eastern Bloc narrative mirrored by this method of mass production, but on a broader scale, it makes apparent a dynamic of normalization underlying the place of images in the construction of a collective understanding of the role of society.
In the exhibition space, facing the Socialismus series, the artist puts two vitrines, in which the book collection of his father – previously used only as a source to his visual juxtapositions – is shown as an archive to its full potential. A Foucauldian partition is played by Tsivopoulos in this piece, where the books are now presented as fully discursive contents, and displayed as a collage of covers, that contain the codes to access all the other works in the room. Four publishing genres compose the selection – in which the Eastern European sci-fi titles stand out. Among these, there is the famous Capek’s play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), where for the first time (1920) the word ”robot” appears, derived from the Czech word “robota” that stands for forced labor. In the dystopia described by Capek, in which the automation of work leads to the creation of biological entities enslaved to industrial production, a counterpart lies in the utopian horizon that permeates The Blind Image materials and their time. The knowledge gathered through the choice of these books, functions here as a testimony of how subjectivity is able to draw a path even in a highly normed mediascape, such as the late 1960s in Czechoslovakia. The library’s owner, specifically through the texts put on show, acquired an autonomous knowledge through a daily appropriation of information, storytelling and images, and breaking medias’ vicious circle that is beautifully deconstructed in the other works.
This personal escapism was not an easy thing to obtain, as the projected specter of a Siberian landscape reminds us at the entrance of the show.
When the past is covered by a ”white silence”, as in the case presented in Amnesialand, the act of remembering is comparable to the political statement that Karl Marx expressed in the “18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” (1852), where he described the events around the Napoleon III dictatorship, as a layering of different shades of grey, one on the other, so to communicate that repetitive dynamic on which history is written and that is also central to the indissoluble acts of remembering and forgetting. And it is precisely in this repetition that everyone’s autonomous attempt to access knowledge plays a revolutionary part in the process of understanding and writing history and its imagery.
With The Public Library of Borrowed Knowledge – in which everyone is invited to contribute with their own experience of ‘borrowed knowledge’ – Tsivopoulos prefers to re-articulate the premises of his artistic practice in the light of a wish for openness of the outcomes of his work. It is exactly in this step that the leap forward, mentioned before, resides. It is in this perspective that The Public Library of Borrowed Knowledge has to be seen and analyzed. The strategies behind the two parts of the show are similar but have two different outcomes: in both parts knowledge is presented as a tool to emancipate the gaze of the subject from any enclosed imagery, but in the latter an open proposition takes place, and an imaginative power to think knowledge otherwise takes the shape of an open and on-going archive for borrowed knowledge.