Research, film and exhibition design for the guest curators of Bergen Assembly 2016, Freethought. Design and research in collaboration with Solveig Suess, Robert Preusse and Laurie Robins.
In Archives of Substance, Irit Rogoff – in collaboration with the writer Vali Mahlouji and historian Mike Berlin, among others – assembles archives that make concrete moments which do not have a clear history, a stable form or identity.
These archives help us grasp how content, desire, aspiration and shared hopes can become a form of ‘substance infrastructure’. When a group of people share trajectories within particular historical moments, they may not build lasting structures but their joint hopes and beliefs do come together in dense atmospheres that are elusive but charged. The archives assembled here are testimony to such charged atmospheres, when aspirations predate any formalised organisation and result in mythic forms: a moment of political vision and solidarity at the Partisan Coffee House in London; a set of cultural imaginaries in Tehran at the Festival of Arts Shiraz-Persepolis; the reactions of viewers around the world to exhibitions they have seen and that have affected them; the efforts by a group of friends and colleagues in Europe to collectively establish a way of researching and thinking in public.
Extracts from a text written by the Mike Berlin to accompany materials (photography, film and printed ephemera) from The Partisan Coffee House archive.
Coffee House Cultural Politics
The Partisan became a platform for the New Left’s critical engagement with 1950s popular culture. Through exhibitions, film screenings and in the pages in the New Left Review, it championed the art, film, music and photography of an emerging generation of political engaged cultural practitioners. Documentary photographer Roger Mayne, who captured the early opening of the Partisan in November 1958, as well as filmmakers associated with the Free Cinema documentary movement were closely linked to the Partisan milieu. The walls of the Partisan were covered by works by the post war neo-realist ‘Kitchen Sink’ school of painters.
The Partisan hosted meetings where the radical art critic John Berger spoke alongside the South African dissident communist novelist Dorris Lessing, theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, Welsh writer Raymond Williams, the French activist journalist and former resistance fighter Claude Bourdet. Open public meetings, poetry readings, chess and coffee opened up a new world of cultural and political heterodoxies which was to shape the identity of a generation of young people.
The Partisan closed in 1962, the victim of its own success, as hundreds of coffee drinking leftist students used the building daily as a meeting place but didn’t spend enough money to make it a going concern. On a broader level its founders and frequenters went on to play a crucial part in the great social and politic movements of the 1960s. Raphael Samuel went on to found the influential History Workshop movement, which helped to revolutionise historical practice by the invention of non-hierarchical community based ‘history from below’. Stuart Hall joined the sociologist Richard Hoggart to create the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham, which became the birthplace for the scholarly examination of modern popular culture. The New Left Review became and remains the foremost left theoretical journal in the English speaking world.
Beyond this, the brief historical moment that the Partisan encompassed helped to inspire a generation of young people to believe that another world was possible. Amid the terrors and cynicism of the Cold War the Partisan represented and provided a sense of hope. Certainly the cultural turn of the 1960s, with its sense of playful experimentation, of improvisation voluntary activism, embodied in the happenings of the mid sixties, the anti Vietnam war movement and the women’s movement owe something to the early New Left’s vision of the interpenetration of politics and culture. The short life of the Partisan embodied a distinct moment of conjuncture, of coming together of disparate, contradictory influences in fertile interplay. Such moments are sometimes destined not to last, but they may be of immense importance in the future.