Blesok no. 74, September-October, 2010
Gallery Reviews

Vivez Sans Temps Mort

Mira Keratová

On the park pavement the actor runs with his mouth and nose covered (they are covered by a scarf). After the air has run out and he has no more strength to run, he rips the scarf off and exhales deeply. His move is in no way documented.
(Description of the action for 3SD. Ján Budaj, 1980)

The beginning of the so-called normalization in Czechoslovakia is defined by the events of the Prague Spring of 1968. The period of political liberalization ended with the entrance of the occupational forces as per the Warsaw Pact in August of 1968. For a long time afterwards, the last event initiating mass mobilization of people was the self-sacrifice of Ján Palach who on the 16th January 1969 set himself on fire in Prague, in the Wenceslas Square. The pacifist character of the collective resistance to the occupation was followed up in November of 1989 with the so-called Velvet Revolution that brought about the fall of the Communist regime. The professed consolidation of Czechoslovakia was definitely introduced after 1972 (at the 13th Congress of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and the issuing of the document Lessons of the Crisis Development in the Party and in Society). Václav Havel called the “normalization” of the 1970s a stage of post-totalitarianism, when the system had already been through its heroisms, and the stabilized society did not hide its pragmatic agendas. People were not asked to believe in the socialist ideals. It was enough to pretend to believe. More than censorship, the issue of self-censorship was imposed. The one controlling absolutely everything no longer exists; the control mechanism is distributed in space. When discussing the normalization, one speaks of apathy, asocial behaviour, plunder of socially owned property, alcoholism, absence form work, emigration, and the like. The real-socialist period seemed endless.

    State cultural policies after 1972 began following Communist Party directives. After the second congress in November of the Slovak Artists’ Association art was expected to abide by the established canon. The oppressive system came into existence in order to meet these demands. The art scene was divided into formal and informal, with the mass mainstream in between. Alternative art operated in isolated dissident communities, with no institutional base. Considering the minimal exhibiting possibilities, in the Slovak engaged art there developed specific forms of land art and body art, the ethical and processing qualities of art were stressed, and group projects were organized. The underground possibilities were reduced to meetings in private apartments, in studios, in the margins of or within informal exhibitions in unrepresentative and non-exhibiting spaces. A number of immaterial actions were developed, the instrument of which was the text (Argillia A. Mlynárčik’s Utopian association) or life itself seen as a conceptual project (Július Koller was playing table tennis and teaching the amateurs about art as “immediate product of cultural life”; Peter Bartoš was breeding pigeons and working on proposals for deployment of ZOO animals).

    In the context of the normalization of the second half of the 1970s, the specific activities of Ján Budaj (1952) and the Temporary Society of Intense Experience (TSIE) commenced. Most of the actions took place in exposed public areas. These actions allowed the audience to slip into the absurd situations. The moves were designed as ambush in which the viewers were then confronted with immediate reality. In the process of surviving their own existence, the spectators were turning into participants. In spirit of Victor Burgin’s similar situational aesthetics (Situational Aesthetics, 1969), they would absorb the work and become its components. Common participants in Budaj’s actions and those of the Temporary Society of Intense Experience, initiated by him, were poet Vladimír Rachel Archleb (1953 – 2007), conceptual and performance artist Ľubomír Ďurček (1948), Igor Kalný (1957 –1987), filmmaker and poet Tomáš Petřivý (1953 – 1986), and others. Budaj described the Temporary Society of Intense Experience (TSIE) as: […] short-term work teams experimenting with theatre, sociology and psychology in the background. The aim was to gain experiences in the field of the changing awareness of the actors in the performances […] The means by which we hoped to achieve these aims were intense events. They were situations creating a short circuit between reality and illusion […], attempts to experience marginal situations […] and others (J. Budaj, 3SD, samizdat publication, 2nd edition, Bratislava, 1988, unpaged).

    Individual action performances disregarded or did not produce any original artistic artefacts. They took place without additional fictional stages. The stage was the normalization reality itself. TSIE came into being as a “pirate enclave” in the normalization space. Most of the actions were, of course, illegal. Budaj and the other participants were guided by the principles of the mature anarchist methodology. The interventions occurred and disappeared as the temporary autonomous zones described by Hakim Bey. The T. A. Z. (Temporary Autonomous Zone) sets the imagination free, and then dissolves itself in order to re-establish somewhere else and in a different manner before the state could manage to eliminate it. The activities of the group started circa 1974 (the Degenerate Generation group) with the first group exhibitions in the format of cabaret performances accompanied by reading absurd texts and appeals. Their goal was not a specific art production. As Budaj wrote in a correspondence with critic T. Štraus, they come about “with the interruption of any production: film screening during the reading, traffic, lack of participation. The audience protests, leaves; is no longer an audience…” The key point was the formation of an alternative space, the appearance of a pluralist environment.

Their common goal was creating an atmosphere […] It was primarily a question of the effect of inauthenticity, boredom, disinterest, or stereotype. The events were to give the viewer an impression of aimlessness, triviality, dilettantism, failure; to forcibly induce a feeling of awkwardness, disappointment and unfulfillment. The monotonous broadcast of the film trap, the multiple screening of the unconventional travelogue or the several randomly selected clips from American feature films set the stage on which the group’s work was presented. Its members gave their literary performances in an untrained, slightly understandable, and, from all aspects of the recital, negative manner. They would often rely solely on videos, so that their presentation activities were reduced to operating the tape recorder and the reproductive technology. Both methods were combined and the audience did not know if it was listening to live speech (by the performer) or playback (the recital had previously been taped, including background noise – coughing, etc) (T. Štraus, Slovenský variant moderny, Bratislava 1992, p. 198).

    In the sense of the intersection between the art world and the world of civic resistance, the activities of TSIE and Budaj in the controlling public space of the Communist city are worth noting. Such actions were not merely acts of provocation. The artist did not merely pay attention to his presentation of society, but also to the structure that society generates. He subjected the audience to an activity from the field of everyday things; for instance, to the lie founded on half-truths that the totalitarian society was pathologically producing. The half-truth is a promising authoritarian tool since its consequences may last longer than those of other types of brainwashing. Disorientation may keep citizens in a passive state for decades. In times when travel was practically a privilege, in June 1978 Budaj and TSIE took out a red banner stating Air travel is the cheapest in an exposed space in the Bratislava centre (at the Trnava turnpike). They employed the standard language and the arrangement in the spirit of the age. The concept of the so-called black propaganda was difficult for the authorities to decipher; it was not uniquely defined from the standpoint of the spectacle. No one openly responded even a week after the display. Between the 16th and the 18th of June 1978 in the centre of Bratislava the group installed photographic reproductions of city arsenal in the places where these objects originally stood. There were simulations of rubbish bins, cobblestone pavements and railings. They were removed two days later. People drilled holes in the fictitious rubbish bins and attempted to throw their trash there. TSIE also took part in the action, together with the actors of the Labyrinth experimental theatre, the role of which was - as Budaj states in his correspondence with T. Štraus: [T]o double what is seen – to imitate the walk, gestures, to mimic the expressions of the of passers-by […] The trolley driver opens the side door to the mimic who has told him we is carrying a heavy suitcase. On the question (from the parallel interview with random passers-by on the tape recorder) whether they consider these actions as art, the answers were divergent. On the question whether they consider them illegal, the interviewees answered with a decisive – no. Regardless of that, most of them did not disregard the possibility that the actors might end up in prison […] Positive reception did not seem to benefit from the disguise of great art (theatre makeup, etc). Direct intervention in life would probably provoke a more aggressive reaction (T. Štraus, ibid. p. 200).

    Ideology adapted the aesthetics into its politics. Budaj adapted politics into the aesthetics of performance art. The interventions resembled the reality-show experiments in which reality and fiction intermingled. The unexpected situations arose from the game seen as seriously as real life itself. The Week of Fictional Culture concept (Bratislava, 22nd January – 3rd February, 1979) was founded on the communication strategies of a parodying advertisement promoting a fictitious product. TSIE launched a fabricated campaign of the socialist normalization “Enartete Kunst”. The supporters were positioned in the centre of town and promoted fictitious events: a screening of Ingmar Bergman’s Rabies with the subtitle of The Problem of Homosexuality in Modern Society; the exhibitions Salvador Dalí in Memoriam and René Magritte: The Picture; the theatrical performance Eugène Ionesco: The Eye; the Bob Dylan – ABBA concert. The promotional posters announced the time and place of the event at one of the official state institutions. The posters were removed in a matter of days. In the case with the concert, they were removed in mere 15 hours. According to Budaj’s comments, the number of participants in these actions was several thousand – the number of those who were physically present at the specific venues at the time specified, as well as those who were spreading the information around. As was stated in the correspondence: [T]he news of each of these events was spread at a rate appropriate to our situation; certain arrangements (that it still might happen, why it has been cancelled, etc) are spreading to this day. The participants in this untruth really participated in something. They made a certain effort – not by going to a gallery, but to another place; they were pulled into a real-life situation, in a conflict. They were forced to respond to the situation, talked about it, considered the reason for it, interpreted it from this aspect – that is to say – formed opinions, lived with it at least for the moment (T. Štraus, ibid. p. 202).

    The Labyrinth theatre and TSIE organized several situational street happenings entitled Street Theatre Week (Bratislava, May 1979). Several actors banded each other with white paper creating, amidst the buzzing street life, immobile, make-believe plaster sculptures. In the distance, on the lawn lay a man with his arms and legs tied. The following day another man was tied to the metal railing of one of the buildings on the crossroad between Sedlárska and Leningrad Street (nowadays Laurinská Street), opposite the Slovak Writers’ Association, Tomáš Štraus recalls (T.Štraus, ibid. pp. 122-123). According to the testimonies from those days, the performer was tied to the Political Education Hall, and the action itself was the man’s gesture of resistance against his own father who was staying at the building across the street.

Another confrontational situation occurred when: [I]n the most crowded morning hours, young boys and girl in jeans lay down across all free spaces between the Fourth of April Square (nowadays, Main Square) and the new Town Hall (Primate’s Square). After the long uncertain waiting and watching, the passers-by had no other choice but to look for a different route or try and pass, risking to trample the people lain on the ground. When they realized that they were no non-governmental alcoholics resting in the streets, they attempted to learn if the situation was in some way arranged.

Creating a surprising situation disrupting the stereotypical behaviour of the passers-by and at the same time becoming a potential impulse for their more intense experience of the everyday resembles the psycho-geographical research of Guy Debord. Budaj’s actions at the time of the Iron Curtain are similar to those of the French situationists; to the idea of creating impulses (plays) intended to cause a continually prolonged revolution of everyday life; to the ambitions to redefine the role of art; to their association with the Dada, surrealist and anarchist movements. There are other fortuitous connections between the situationists and Budaj’s interventions. The IS initiative focused on the theory and the practical activity in constructing situations (Internationale Situationniste 1, 1958). The situationists were theorists of the civic uprisings and key figures in the student riots in Paris in 1968. Budaj, an environmental activist and engaged publisher of samizdat, or independent publications, (cfr. S. Mallarmé’s famous quote: “Je ne sais pas d'autre bombe, qu'un livre”), in 1989 became the leader of the Slovak Velvet Revolution that marked the fall of Communism in former Czechoslovakia. Given the discussion on the relation between centre and periphery, one must note that not even this case was about taking over the model of the imaginary centre with which there was no real connection; there was not even an interdependent relationship. Considering the isolation and the harsh conditions in normalized Czechoslovakia, one might speak of a so-called glass culture. The thinking of the world was, nevertheless, guided by similar ideas, even though in different circumstances and on grounds of another complex of information and motivations – possible in Western consumerist world and indispensable in Central-European totalitarian space.

Ľubomír Ďurček, who was one of the participants in Budaj’s TSIE actions, for Street Theatre Week created several scenarios for the movement of performers among the crowds. In the notes toward the concept of Rezonancie (1979) he writes: In the given area of the city in a matter of hours is encountered a collective of some twenty-odd members (everyday clothes). The activities of the collective aimed to creating psycho-social situations are to be regarded first in one, and then the other stage: identification with the crowd of passersby; distancing from the crowd (creating a geometric figure of sorts, which would also imply a creation of a specific situation). The time for creating the “geometric figures” should be as short as possible. Each passerby included in creating situations is to receive a card with partial information. The spectator becomes an active part of the composition. For instance: [I]n the dynamic character of Aureole, the collective of twenty members standing in the shape of a circle surrounded the passerby, whereby the shape of the collective adhered to the direction in which the passerby was going. Once the passerby increasingly felt afraid and threatened, the group, as in a film shot, suddenly broke up. The aim was the catharsis occurring once the passerby realized that it was all just a game. In another instance there was a corridor of figures through which people were supposed to pass, or a wall of bodies cutting off the way the passers-by were going, or sometimes, instead of a wall – a passage closed at one end (Z. Rusinová, Umenie Akcie 1965 – 1989. Bratislava 2001, p. 141).

    In a totalitarian city, preventing demonstrations with a ban on public gatherings, constant activities of the seriousness of the protest commenced (such are, for instance, the Taiwanese performances during the military regime). The strict ban on public gatherings in Czechoslovakia was enforced by the so-called nightstick law which was passed after the 1968 events. Everyone had to be employed. The employer’s stamp had to be visible in the ID. Loitering in the streets during work hours would imply a breach of the maintenance law (police raids to discover loiterers were common practice in night clubs, for instance). A several-hour interrogation at the secret police would ensue, and possibly prison. As Foucault states in History of Madness, the line (of “virtuous society”) lies between work and loitering. Power relations were enforced by means of normalization that divided the types of behaviour into normal and abnormal, or acceptable and unacceptable, using disciplinary mechanisms. The police reaction, according to Budaj’s testimony, was expected in advance. The artists could anticipate the time when mobilization and police actions would occur. In such cases nearly 20 minutes would pass, during which the activists disappeared from the scene.

    The so-called normalization was a period of tiredness of ideology, bureaucracy, formalization of reform slogans and art, attempting to start “a change in the individual through intense experience.” John Dewey (Art as Experience, 1934), who inspired, for instance, Kaprow’s theory of the transformative potential of aesthetic experience, states that we could only develop as human beings if we manage to actively cooperate, if we manage to form our surroundings and be formed by it. Should we find ourselves in new surroundings, that is, in a new situation, we must always reorganize our repertory of responses and reactions; we thus increase our capacity for experiencing. Dewey defines this phenomenon as heightening vitality. Constructed situations offered the audience new sorts of experiences. Their active participation was analogous to their involvement in the world. In the bulletin Info TSIE – For Internal Purposes (Bratislava, 1981, unpaged), Budaj outlines the idea of the Temporary Society of Intense Experience as an attempt “to create for oneself, for one’s friends or strangers a situation of intense experience with a concrete and positive appeal […] it is impossible to construct something like that without first dealing with oneself, or distancing oneself from the constructed situation.” Situations of the so-called mutual transfer of pleasure from one participant to another, or situations of complicity in creating common desire in the actions Lunch 1, 2 (Bratislava, 1978). These civic feasts took place on the Bratislava Main Square and at the concrete parking lot in the Dúbravka district, where in full view of onlookers, several actors were banqueting and conversing. Budaj also continued the absurd theatrical actions by beginning to photograph them. Some of them resemble Daniil Kharms’ short stories: a chicken is let loose in the town centre, and the photographer follows its frantic movement through the urban chaos until it enters the Pipi Grill diner (a diner formally situated in Ventúrska Street); a man and a woman (Love Allegory), wrapped in wire, sit on a park bench, imitating a sculpture.

Budaj’s 1981 samizdat 3SD speaks of the prepared Three Sunny Days (3SD) action, first formally allowed, but banned at the last minute. It was to take place at the Bratislava Medical Gardens in May 1980. The 3SD action “was continuing the May events with similar contents […] in 1978 and 1979. They were attempts, street forms of theatre “supported” by the Labyrinth mime theatre (J. Budaj, 3SD. 2nd edition, Bratislava 1988, unpaged). The month of May in Communist Czechoslovakia was a period of the most extravagant state celebrations and compulsory mass parades (Labour Day, Liberation Day, etc). The choreography of spectacles during spring festivities would begin with organized celebrations of the February Victory, then continue with the International Women’s Day, Book Month, and so on, and climax during the May festivities, closing at the beginning of June with the International Children’s Day. For the normalization to go on as inconspicuously as possible, the greatest folk festivities coincided with the period of mass Catholic pilgrimages. The TSIE May activities may be associated with Paul Thek’s theory that the public sees more clearly the liturgical nature of art during the holidays. Thek has Christian holidays in mind, according to which he modified the timing of his installations as, for instance, according to the Christmas period. Budaj’s TSIE existed in an ideologically constructed society in which Marxism took over the role of religion. TSIE in its May activities could have underscored the rituality of the system the governing instrument of which was, according to need, Marxist philosophy and aesthetics.

    The Three Sunny Days action was to unite several relatively isolated dissident groups of artists, theatre workers and environmentalists in order to: [C]reate a situation of contact. Contact between the public and the work of less known and non-conformist artists […] and among them also environmentalists – contact of the public with itself. It was an attempt to create authentic public events […] It turned out that people subconsciously are always waiting for a invigorating event; that they need a space where they could come together as a community. Finally, nothing special need be happening there… (J. Budaj, ibid. unpaged). There were also supposed to be day-long presentations and workshops with artists from Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland. The 3SD organization was thoroughly checked, but was nevertheless cancelled. After the cancellation of the 3SD action a whole history began, the real reasons for which have remained unknown to this day. We could only see the outward manifestations; the confiscation and destruction of the whole circulation of the 3SD Bulletin, the ban of the Labyrinth theatre, as well as ban of the V-Club and firing the professionals, interrogating the 3SD actors, the attempts to convict the manager of Labyrinth at the workplace, etc (J. Budaj, ibid. unpaged). In the samizdat version of 3SD appeared something that could only be compared to the contemporary critical attempts to contextualize art and to the processes of human and collective memory. The 3SD bulletin published interviews with the artists that were to participate, screenplays for the situations that were never presented, anecdotes with the authors, works unrealized at the time, and so on. From the workshops planned, an open concept of Utopian events came into being.

    Hello Europe! According to Budaj became: [T]he peak of the years-long attempts to connect the art and its boundaries with the real world. On the park pavement the actor runs with his mouth and nose covered (they are covered by a scarf). After the air has run out and he has no more strength to run, he rips the scarf off and exhales deeply. His move is in no way documented (Description of the action for 3SD. Ján Budaj, 1980). The collective action Hello Europe! came into being in cooperation with Ladislav Snopko a Martin Bútor during the first weeks of the Velvet Revolution, on 10th December 1989. The moment of definite shift of art beyond the limits and its merging with the real world occurred when 150,000 people realized the pedestrian crossing across the Czechoslovak border, finally open after 40 years. The crossing through the Iron Curtain symbolized the Communist regime, which was still formally representing the state, marked in the live feed from the gathering at the Slovak Popular Theatre. Several days later the Austrian parliament was discussing the immediate need to revoke the visas for Czechoslovakia. The 40-kilometre-long road to the Austrian town of Hainburg is referred to as Greetings to Europe (participants on both banks of the Danube could greet each other); the revolutionaries were signing (still valid) passports and IDs. It was the March of Understanding in the spirit of the concept of the Velvet Revolution and the Public against Violence revolutionary movement. It was a revolution with no use of violence whatsoever.

Vlna (výtvarná), 2009, ch. 39.
A shortened version of the text was also published in
Transforming 68/69
(Metropol Verlag, Berlin, 2008)

Translated into English by Kalina Janeva

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