"I love history but I am not an historian," explains Hungarian artist Peter Forgács, one of Europe's best-known independent film and video artists and a former GRI scholar. "I am out of the category. I want to be on the boundary, in my own island. I am interested in the psychoanalysis of history." In 1983 Forgács established the Private Film and Photo Archive Foundation in Budapest, a study collection of amateur films and snapshots of twentieth-century Europe.
Forgács, who has made more than thirty films and videos, is best known for his pieces that rework or "reorchestrate" found footage and which now form the basis of his Private Hungary series. The collection of films is based on amateur film footage, mostly shot by Central Europeans during the Nazi era of the 1930s and 1940s, which retell the intimacy of private lives, while reminding the viewer of the political turmoil and unspeakable suffering occurring off screen.
Forgács explains that the found footage permits an insight into a certain "schizophrenia" that existed between the public and private lives in Hungary. "The public lives are so strong," he says, "but because of the lack of free press, you can't tell what people are really thinking." He parallels these amateur films with Duchamp's principle of the objet trouve, as he re-presents the amateur films in a manner suggestive of a secret dream, there to be unraveled. Forgács encourages a rereading of these home movies, a recontextualizing whereby the material can be viewed again and again in a process that Forgács describes as "psychoanalyzing history." Forgács interlaces the found footage with snippets of newsreel, political announcements, and musical scores that often jar with images of domestic contentment. Forgács's "reorchestrations," woven into a highly skilled patchwork of tension and contemplation, are designed to leave open the layers of attributions of meaning for the viewer: "I want you to activate your own associations and not replace them," he says. They are minimally narrated, as Forgács believes that "there is enough text in films already. It is what is beyond words that will reach you. The truth is something metaphysical and words are nothing in comparison to the work."
"I am using the ordinary language of photography and film to find in banality, the sacred."
Forgács was a resident scholar at the GRI in 2000-2001, when the research theme was "Reproductions and Originals." His ambition during his tenure was to translate his award-winning film The Danube Exodus into a CD-ROM. Forgács compiled the film from original amateur 8 mm footage taken by Nbndor Andrásovits (1894-1958), a riverboat captain who documented his voyages along the river Danube as he transported first Eastern European Jewish refugees to safety in Palestine in 1939, and then Bessarabian Germans to resettlement in occupied Poland in 1940. The film is set to the ethereal score or "sound scope" of composer Tibor Szemzo, which resonates through Forgács's journey in "time archaeology." Hoping to expand the film by incorporating newly acquired footage, Forgács came into contact with Marsha Kinder, director of the Labyrinth Project, a research initiative on interactive narrative at the University of Southern California Annenberg Center for Communication. As the dialogue between Forgács and Kinder gained momentum, what began as a project for a CD-ROM developed into a multidimensional time and space exhibition that would launch the GRI's 2002-2003 theme of "Biography."
The Danube Exodus: The Rippling Currents of the River was a collaboration among Forgács, the GRI, the Getty exhibition design team, and the Labyrinth Project. As outlined by Barbara Anderson, head of GRI exhibitions, the worlds of filmmaking, new media, museums, academia, and design had to knit together to overcome a variety of creative hurdles. Getty designers Merritt Price and Leon Rodriguez navigated unwieldy gallery spaces, while the Labyrinth team worked on solutions for the interface design. The project exemplifies the interdisciplinary, innovative approach that the GRI hopes to foster, as well as the desire to forge continuing relationships with GRI scholars and local art initiatives.
The installation set out to reorchestrate the three historical narratives recorded by Captain Andrbsovits-the story of the Jews, the Bessarabian Germans, and that of the captain and the river-pro¬ducing an environment in which visitors were surrounded by image, sound, and text. The power of the traumatic journeys culminated in the central gallery, where the footage was projected onto five expansive adjacent screens from which visitors could select the narrative they wished to watch by using a touch-screen interface. The resulting effect was an emphasis on the plight of the individual, and the footage documented not only the sorrow, joy, and fear of the refugees, but also the daily life on board the ship. Everyday life played out in extreme circumstances fascinates Forgács, as he believes that behind the banal you find the "Freudian slip." "Under difficult circumstances, what happens to domesticity, what happens to family dynamics? I am using the ordinary language of photography and film to find in banality, the sacred."
Forgács knew that by juxtaposing World War II narratives of the Germans and the Jews, he was operating in sensitive territory. "It is very rare for Germans and Jews to be framed together in this period," explained Zaia Alexander, co-curator of the exhibition. "But we were also aware of the pitfalls of comparing the incomparable. This project was not approached naively, nor was it intended as a self-conscious provocation." In preparation for the exhibition, Alexander conducted extensive research in the special collections of the Research Library at the GRI, where she unearthed three encyclopedias on the Danube compiled by Count Luigi Ferdinando Marsili in the early eighteenth century. Forgács immediately saw a striking similarity between the documentary approaches to the river by both the captain and the count. Maps and drawings of the Danube region, as chronicled by the count, were displayed in the exhibition to demonstrate a historical interlacing with Forgbcs's narration of the river.
Three related public events accompanied the installation, all of which converged on the theme of biography. In September 2002, the Getty hosted the U.S. premiere of Forgács's film A Bibo Reader. The film, similarly set to Szemzo's original music and compiled from found footage, traced the life of Istvan Bib6, Hungary's greatest polit¬ical thinker of the twentieth century. "It is a dream-reading of problems in an incomprehensible situation," offers Forgács.
Members of the public were able to hear Forgács speak for him¬self in a panel discussion titled "Biography on Film." Moderated by Kinder, the discussion centered on th'e approach to biography in the context of the Holocaust, focusing on the works of award-winning documentary filmmaker Mark Jonathan Harris and Forgacs. During the Q&A several survivors of Nazi persecution put their questions to the filmmakers, and one survivor encapsulated the trauma by stating that "the Holocaust to me is still incomprehensible." Forg&cs's films and exhibition were attended by survivors of both the Holocaust and the Bessarabian exodus, several of whom contacted the GRI to relate their emotional reactions.
The related events concluded with another multimedia presentation, Free Fall Oratorio, which evolved out of Forgacs's award-winning video Free Fall (1996-1997) and which Forgács considers to be one of his best works. The film documents the life of Gyorgy Peto, whose intimate home movies, in their quiet horror, reveal the unfolding of the Holocaust. For Free Fall Oratorio, Forgács narrated the film as it played behind him, while Szemzo and vocalists from the Gordian Knot Company of Hungary performed a score of chamber music and recitative over a taped soundtrack.
Despite the numerous layers to Forgács's work, both aesthetical and conceptual, the impression is often one of space. Recognizing this space is one of the keys to comprehending Forgács and his art, because it is this metaphysical silence or freedom that covertly encourages thought and meditation, while never demanding reflection. "Silence is the source of music and thoughts," says Forgács, "and space is needed for the basic questions of humanity."