Kenneth McBride

Kenneth McBride is an artist, writer and educator as well as being the founder of agora8

In his durational performance installations he is interested in art as a form of memorial that can activate collective memory. He is author of many works and has presented in diverse locations and contexts internationally, often operating beyond the traditional gallery structures and in a wide variety of impermanent or public spaces. Works often engage the full range of senses.

Chapter 2: A Fiery Lens Aims at Surface

Artists: Karel Miler (Czechoslovakia) | Tomáš Ruller (Czechoslovakia) | Stefan Bertalan (Romania) | ÜTÖ Gustáv (Romania) | Kollektivnye Deistvia (Collective Actions, Soviet Union/Russia)  

In March 1965 the American beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who coined the term ‘flower power’, arrived in Prague at the invitation of students at the city’s Charles University. (1) His presence sparked a huge flurry of interest and his demeanor, half hippy half guru, galvanized huge crowds to his poetry readings in the small theatres of Prague and Bratislava, nourishing the already germinating seeds of dissent that were in the air.

The crowds saw in Ginsberg a radical socialist who was making a timely visit that coincided with a groundswell of resistance to a system that was at odds with the will of the people. The hopes were that Ginsberg, a prominent figure in the human rights movement, would solicit support on the world stage. (2)

Kusin (1978) shows that what was being sought wasn’t the overthrow of the system but the reforming of it, and most especially the replacing of the quasi-authoritarian Communist Party General Secretary and President of Czechoslovakia Antonín Novotný who had taken Czechoslovakia down a path of economic ruin. By 1968 radio stations had abandoned much of their official programming and replaced it with western rock and roll. Czechoslovak society “strongly mirrored the Western [1968] movement” (Kern, cited in, Breuer, 2008) but the ways in which they reacted against the establishment differed form those in the west,

The major difference lay in the fact that the Czechs did not believe in revolutionary ideas. So the Western students considered the Czech students as "merely" reformers, while the Czechs tended to view them a little as crazy radicals (Kern, cited in, Breuer, 2008).

Substantial pressure was being applied to the government and Novotný’s subsequent reaction backfired. He increased censorship laws and sacked anyone he considered to hold liberal ideas, no matter how marginal. Prague officials, however, felt he had overreacted and ousted him, replacing him with Alexander Dubček who they considered able to steer the country out of Novotný’s disaster that had seen prices rise and wages fall.

Dubček promoted towards closer ties with the west and a more tolerant and open society; ‘socialism with a human face’. (3) Between March and August 1968 he brought a short-lived period of liberalism to Czechoslovakia that came to be known as the ‘Prague Spring’.

Czech and Slovak were federalized into separate republics, thus easing tensions between two distinct groups of people, and travel restrictions and censorship laws for individuals and the media were rolled back. Dubček publically stated that, “we shall have to remove everything that strangles artistic and scientific creativeness" (Dubček, cited in, Rechcígl, 2008, p. 58).

The Soviets, who were still attempting to control the new, progressive, wave in the arts and media following Khrushchev’s 1956 de-Stalinization programme, and having lost all their hard-line allies in Dubček’s reordering of the government, feared a regional spread of liberalism and internal democratization. They reacted with violent measures and, on August 21st, invaded Czechoslovakia with 175,000 tanks and troops of the Warsaw Pact. ‘Operation Danube’ claimed around 100 Czechoslovak lives (Williams, 1997), sealed the borders with the west, removed Dubček (4) any stopped his reforms dead. (5)

In a cruel and bitter twist of irony the image of the Russians as liberators of the 1945 Nazi occupation was changed overnight and forever,

All at once the liberators were occupying their country. That put an end to sympathy for the Russians. And hope all but died that the system could be reformed (Breuer, 2008).

The West was criticized for failing to seize the opportunity to support an internal democratization of Communism. The Czechoslovakian people were thus dealt a crushing blow on both sides: they would serve again the Soviet master, but, this time around, they would also be aliens to a western world that they had pinned a great deal of their hope on.

Czechoslovak society began to realise that what the Soviet’s claimed had been the single most threat to the Communist project had, ironically, become equally true of their own personal dreams. Their future was clear: “it depended not only on the lot prepared for them by others, but also on their own judgement” (Palouš, cited in, (eds.) Bucar & Barnett, 2005:261).

Research (Pilař, 2001) shows that artists and intellectuals were increasingly victimised, jailed, expelled, and put under house arrest, prompting the formation of the Czech human rights organisation, Charta 77.

In the same year the Czechoslovakian political activist and mathematician Václav Benda published a samizdat titled Parallel Polis in which he urged a cessation of activities directed towards theoverthrow or reform of the ruling system (Pilař, 2001). Essential to his thesis was that parallel institutions would be more receptive to human needs and one day may even replace the governing institutions. (6)

Benda’s proposal was taken up and theorized by the musician Ivan Martin Jirous (7) who coined the term ‘second culture’ as a clear indication that artistic and spiritual freedom should not be sought through engagement with either official politics or the “shadowy establishment of Charter 77” (Pilař, 2001), but rather should aim for,

A culture independent of official channels of communication, of social appreciation and of the hierarchy of values, determined by the establishment (Jirous, cited in, Pilař, 2001).

Jirous was convinced that the purpose of second culture was not to destroy the already existing system since this would only lead to it being subsumed by another system. Rather, a second culture based on “complete socializing” (Kahout, 2006) would ignore it altogether and instead promote “a mental attitude of intellectuals and artists who consciously and critically determine their own stance towards the world in which they live” (Jirous, cited in Pilař, 1998).

Following the suppression of the Prague Spring the country entered a twenty-year period of ‘normalization’ that saw around half a million people “robbed of the opportunity to engage in any intellectual activity whatsoever” (Breuer, 2008). State support was withdrawn for all non-official artistic practices, thus effectively banning the ‘new’ practices such as conceptual art and land art (Keratová, 2008).

In Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere in the region, a number of artists responded to an intensified authoritarianism by forging new methods of production, and where the theatricality of performance art gave way to the more concentrated character of action art. These actions became more like intensely private rituals where only the camera lens or, sometimes, a few family members or close friends would be present.

It is no mistake to say that, with the exception of these few trusted friends and family, people remained largely unaware of the works until after 1989, and that today they are still being discovered as both artworks in their own right and as traces of a heteroglossiac past.

Employing a basic form of documentary recording these works often imparted an autobiographical note. The uncertainty of not knowing if their works would ever be seen beyond these small private circles contributed to the biggest problem of all; an enormous amount of works simply weren’t documented, “We weren’t always able to have photographic materials” (Uto, 2008).

This period ushered in a very real shift towards the body as primary material so that the mirror that had once been held up to the west was now turned onto and into the self. The body became both the external, material site of action and the interiority of social, artistic, and political subjectivity. At times it would become a “surface that contrasted with the opaque artist’s ‘interior’” (Piotrowski, 1998) upon or over which “other materials were passed” (Pintilie, 2001).

We can contrast the appeal of the body to both artists and the Communist system: while the works of artists emerged from their own concrete bodies as reflections of an unfolding historical process, the discourse of power employs the more abstract and metaphorical language such as, “'the body of the institution,' 'state organs,' or 'the hand of justice"' (Pejić, cited in, Kaiarzyna, 1999, p. 17). 

Despite the ban, or perhaps more accurately because of it, these shifts in material ordering resulted in a number of striking works that brought a new and often violent dimension to what would be called ‘Eastern European Body art’. (8) The artist’s body became a “last frontier” (Weibgen, 2009) in the battle between the individual and the State.

To assert control over one’s body was to deny that control to the authorities... There was no radical declaration of individuality in Communist Czechoslovakia that did not also imply a radical critique of the state (Weibgen, 2009).

Both representational and actual violence onto the body placed the artist within a complex that was part human part divine, where the interrogation of context became a spiritual quest and a mystic act that counteracted the depersonalised space of power. With the outlawing of contemporary practices and the forced manoeuvres of non-official artistic activity in general, it was to ritual-like actions that artists turned. Artists had fallen under greater State scrutiny, making it especially difficult to produce work in urban centres since their activities might unintentionally implicate passersby.

During the 1970-80s the Czechoslovakian artist Karl Miler produced a series of interventions that he carried out with as little visual distraction to the environment as possible.

I was close to the minimalist sentiment, which was linked to corporeality... not allowing myself to do anything with my body, which could be even simpler (Miler, cited in Klímová, 2006, p. 49).

His actions verged on invisibility, barely noticed but for the presence of a photographer and his camera whose own actions drew most attention to Miler. Often acting on a spur of the moment decision he would simply begin a sequence of gestures that created meaning on two distinct levels.

On the one hand there was his own bodily experiencing of gesticulation in space and, on the other, how that experience that would be passed over to the viewer in the form of a trace of the action, the documentary photograph. Miler contrasts the ‘non-artistic’ photograph to a carefully composed image: the non-artistic photograph privileges the idea and sense of eventness in such a way that the viewer experiences the work in a different way than the artist does,

[The non-artistic photograph] has the same power as the event itself. My own experience is related to my body and only I can experience it physically, everyone else relies on their eyes, they don’t participate physically (Miler, cited in, Klímová, 2006, p.49).

In his 1972 action Either/Or Miler lays face down beside a pavement kerb, and then he lays face down on top of it [Fig. 9]. He was concerned not only to use the corporeality of his body but also to activate the body as little as possible.

Two photographs of these actions appear at first glance to be the same but when viewed “once, twice and a third time, then they’ll [the viewer] notice that the photographs change in a certain way”. (Miler, cited in Klímová, 2006, p. 50). Pospiszyl demonstrates that conditions in Czechoslovakia at the time forced Miler to make the action in a remote place because to lie on the ground in a city centre would have been “perceived as provocation” (Pospiszyl, cited in, Klímová, 2006, p. 75). Even so, and despite his attempts to not draw any attention, Miler was, like many others, subjected to police interrogation to determine if his actions were hostile to the State (Klímová, 2006).

The Communist ideology was the State. Our way of thinking was different from it, that’s why it was hostile to the state. Our thinking was against the manner in which things were presented to us in newspapers, on the radio, we tried to look at it from another angle. We didn’t feel any borderlines (Miler, cited in Klímová, 2006, p. 55).

Miler’s Either/Or illustrates this latter claim by clearly demonstrating Communist divisionism through an art action. A simple kerbstone becomes representational: Miler relates that “the Communists kept dividing the world by the Iron Curtain: Socialism’s here, Capitalism there” (Miler, cited in Klímová, 2006, p.55). However, in his 1977 action Close to the Clouds, that this author has re-enacted as part of the thesis, Miler shows us that the artist can transcend even these harsh earthly pressures [Fig. 10].

A photograph shows him jumping from the earth and, although still subject to gravity he is, nonetheless, momentarily released from the world below. Unlike Kabakov’s lonely character, who chose to launch himself into the cosmos, Miler elects to remain within the world and to find his own way through history.

It is within everyone’s possibility to be closer to the clouds. It is not necessary to dream; it suffices to jump up a bit. It is not a poetic metaphor, but a normal, everyday activity pointing to our limits (Miler, cited in Badovinac, 1998, p. 52).

It has been argued that Miler’s work is “almost completely ignoring symbolic meanings” (Ševčík, cited in Badovinac, 1998, p. 46), yet both Either/Or and Close to the Clouds are at odds with Ševčík’s critique.

Close to the Clouds is a most graceful gesture, exuberant in its defiance of the oppressive conditions from which it has sprung, a flight of free expression. Miler shows us that there are no lines drawn by man that can change a simple reality: as he leaps the world spins and he too spins with it. He lands in the same place and the same historic time. He illustrates that there is the gravity of context and there is the gravity of the human condition.

In September 1968 the Polish accountant and former Home Army soldier Ryszard Siwiec performed self-immolation in Warsaw’s packed Dziesięciolecia Stadium (10th Anniversary Stadium) during a harvest festival. [Fig. 11]

The action was so immediate that some who were passing failed to register it. A film (9) shows him fending off confused bystanders who rush to his aid fearing he has either had an accident, or is mad and a threat to others. Siwiec does his best to fight them off but is eventually overcome, his body weakened by burning.

When they have succeeded in dousing the flames and Siwiec stands, charred, in front of them, we feel an awareness creeping upon those who intervened that perhaps this man has something important to say and that they should permit him his moment. Flanked by a mass of clearly distraught onlookers and police he delivers an impassioned speech in which he (presumably) recites his speech recorded at home a few days before,

People, people! Pull yourselves together! Young people, the future of the nation, don’t let yourselves be murdered every twenty years…Don’t be murdered for this or another group of people, [for] total authority. People, don’t forget the world’s most beautiful word: mother! People, who maybe hold a spark of humanity, human feelings, pull yourselves together. Hear my cry. The cry of a simple man. A cry to the nation. Love one’s own and other’s freedom, over everything! Over your own life, pull yourselves together, it’s not too late (Siwiec, You Tube, 2008).

Research (Anderman et al, 1985, p.110) shows that Siwiec, a father of five, left a number of tape recordings and notes that laid out his opposition to the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia and Poland’s participation in it. He died in hospital three days later, and after 1989 was posthumously decorated by Poland, Slovakia, and Czech Republic. (10)

A few months later, in January 1969,  Czechoslovakian student activist Jan Palach died after performing a more celebrated self-immolation ritual in Prague’s Wenceslas Square in a similar protest. (11)

Almost twenty years later, in 1988, when the effects of ‘normalization’ were still being felt, the Czechoslovakian artist Tomáš Ruller was denied permission to travel to participate in Germany’s prestigious Documenta event. In a Prague suburb he responded by producing the performance ‘8.8.88’ that, to this day, remains the single most terrifying image of state containment. [Fig. 12]

Struggling with the alienating landscape of depersonalized housing bloks, that serves as powerful metaphor of the condition imposed on the social body, he is seen stumbling, his back aflame, towards a large murky puddle where his body collapses and, we assume, the flames are doused.

A witness is seen close by. It is interesting to notice how she appears to be frozen in time, and in disbelief, while the image of Ruller remains undeniably in motion. It creates a sense that the witness bears the frozen weight of the past while Ruller/the artist appears as an active present.

It remains one of the single most chilling art testament to the length of time that this long and sustained period of cultural isolation and suppression lasted in Czechoslovakia. It is extraordinary that an artist would go to such lengths to invoke the sense of despair felt. The apparent violence of the action would be impossible to comprehend if we had no understanding of the context it was developed in. Ruller is not making an appeal against the decision to refuse him a travel document, nor is he seeking some cathartic healing.

Rather, he embodies a raging and expellant fire that seeks, in its moment of flaming destruction, to consume and suffocate the order imposed on the individual cell within the social body in order that it can then be set free to join in the world proper. It is the fire of frustration and of despair; it seeks to consume the oxygen of the system, to shut it down in all finality.

Of course, the difference between Siwiec, Palach, and Ruller, is that Ruller never intended to kill himself. He no doubt considered his action meticulously, perhaps pacing the distance beforehand and calculated that he would be able to begin and complete the action with the absolute minimum of danger to himself.

He may have worn protective clothing underneath, or used a form of trickery of flame that would contribute to the power of the image yet keep him safe from harm. He may have done all these things, or none of them, since the image we are presented with, as the trace of the action, does not contribute any of this knowledge. In its transmission the sadism of a body so exhausted in its everyday frustrated protest manifests its desolation through the metaphor of self-immolation.

‘Immolate’, from the Latin ‘immolare’, means sacrifice, and, while in itself it does not indicate burning, many religions and practices throughout history have linked them together. In the early 17th century French Jesuit priests would burn areas of their own limbs to signify the suffering of Christ on the cross, while the Buddhist scholar Thich Nhat Hahn (1965) shows that the ritual burning of incense on one’s body has long been a form of vow taking in the history of Buddhism.

The self-immolation of Ruller, however, transcends religious practice to become a symbol of the huge cultural separation of the individual artist from the ideology of the State. The act of burning oneself is to demonstrate that the convictions held are of the utmost importance and carry with them a consequence of action.

For Ruller, the aim was not to extinguish his life, but to be seen to burn. What he was really seeking to achieve was a profound conveyance of his determination that the huge cultural gulf between the people and the State would never be resolved by containment. In this respect he has consciously chosen the act of self-immolation as a signifier of a resistance to the violence of ideology.

Nahn, in his open letter to Martin Luther King observed that, to the Vietnamese Buddhist monks who protested the Vietnam War by self-immolation, “the act of burning and burning to death is only a matter of degrees” (Hahn, 1965). Thus, Ruller’s highly symbolic action shows the portrayal of self-immolation as more intense than the heat of fire itself.

And because he was not ‘actually’ practicing self-immolation we can imagine that he was, at least for a few moments, traumatized. It is not at all a tolerable thing to do, to set oneself on fire in a public space. It is beyond any understanding of normal, everyday, social behaviour. And we know from the long history of self-immolation that one who would practice it would not be traumatized but, rather, would be in complete control of their actions through adherence to a rigorous set of disciplinary constructs that would effectively guide the execution of the purposeful act.

The traumatised individual, on the other hand, behaves in an irrational way that is unpredictable and wholly unknown. There is no gradual decent into hell, for hell has already come. Instinctive reactions, whose clarity often later astonish, assume full responsibility for protection. Until such a time as help arrives (in any form) there is no other guarding or deflecting the assault but the instincts of the Self, and that Self might as well be an alien body for all its unfamiliarity.

And thus the body that undertakes an act such as Ruller does, does so partly from a place outside of the self. That is, from a place outside of his ‘known’, or public, identity, that which the state has imposed. He has, quite simply, become an individual. And a primary quality of the individual is volition, the human will.

Yet in order to perform the act fully there is a requirement of witness and, in this case, it goes beyond the currents of everyday morality and infuses the unwilling spectator with an  unreasonable level of reciprocal trauma. This is most obviously seen in the figure of the girl a short distance away.

We can only guess as to her condition during these long agonizing moments that Ruller burns in front of her. The image of Palach’s self-immolation is ingrained in the Czech (12) . It is reasonable therefore to imagine that Ruller’s action activates this collective memory and thus brings context to the traumatised mind of the witness.

However, there are others too who see the body on fire, who view it from a boundary space, and we are a part of this crowd. Our relationship to the image affords us a choice. We can approach it either as a distancing screen through which we manage our relationship to suffering, or as a mechanism by which we come to a more compassionate understanding of the world. In this boundary space, that separates spectacle from spectation, we are simultaneously with Ruller as a surface, and as the trace that bears witness to the past.

Romania’s Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu (13) vehemently opposed the 1968 Soviet intervention into Czechoslovakia and publically threatened to meet any such action against Romania with force. Moreover however, the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia was an opportunity for Ceauşescu to push ahead with his own unique personality cult in Eastern Europe, and to reaffirm his doctrine for the arts.

At the Third National Conference of the Union of Plastic Artists in Bucharest in 1968 Ceauşescu insisted that the old tenets of Socialist Realism were still valid, and that the “the common factor in Socialist art is the Marxist-Leninist philosophical outlook," and that art has been given the task "of enlightening the mind and thoughts of the popular masses” (Ceauşescu, cited in, Open Society Archives, 1995).

He rebranded Socialist Realism as Socialist Humanism, a re-wording that was supposed to account for a mix of Socialist content but that would also reflect national characteristics. Ordering artists to portray “specific national features” (Ceauşescu, cited in, Open Society Archives, 1995) he roundly attacked individualist expression as a capitalist evil devoid of human and social content that “tries to isolate the artists from the main recipient of their creation - the viewers at large, the people” (Ceauşescu, cited in, Open Society Archives, 1995).

At the same conference Ceauşescu stated that, “it goes without saying that creative freedom is guaranteed in our society” (Ceauşescu, cited in, Open Society Archives, 1995) yet only a few months later declared "only madmen could question the vitality of socialism in Romania" (Ceauşescu, cited in, Tismaneanu, 2008). This statement would become the official rationalization that allowed for the routine use of psychiatry against non-official artists and intellectuals.

Stefan Bertalan and Constantin Flondor founded The Sigma Group in Timisoara, 1970-78. The first Romanian experimental art group, their activities “were a mixture of study and emotion, where ‘group solitude’ made the investigations authentic” (Balaci, 2003). Research (Balaci, 2003) shows that these were ephemeral projects where photography and moving image were both material substance and a means of recording the body in time.

Bertalan would become Romania’s best-known ‘land artist’ through his signature interventions that promoted a deep ecological sensibility to the world around him: “the hymn of an inner growth’s cyclical return” (Pintilie, 2005). He would attach paper and textiles to trees and branches and wait for light and weather to compose forms upon them.

Seeking to illustrate the two principal reactions to Communism as “either to accuse history, or evade it” (Babeti, cited in (eds.) Hoptman & Pospiszyl, 2002, p. 53), Babeti draws a harrowing picture of Bertalan as “the exemplar of his fellow beings’ neurosis” (Babeti, cited in, (eds.) Hoptman & Pospiszyl, 2002, p. 55). The oppressive conditions in Romania had led Bertalan to be certain that he was being spied on at every moment,

I am being watched at every step, watched through those holes… Disguised as tractor operators and lumberjacks, they prevented me from drawing, even up in the mountains at Rasinari… While I was working in the Apuseni Mountains an airplane followed my every move during the whole time I was there (Babeti, cited in (eds.) Hoptman & Pospiszyl, 2002, p. 54).

Throughout Ceauşescu’s brutalizing reign the Transylvanian Ütö Gustáv bore a defiant slogan born of oppression: “The artist is free” (Ütö, 2008). Transylvania is a multiethnic region with its own languages distinct from the Romance language of Romania but Ceauşescu forbade anything but Romanian to be spoken.

Ütö’s is a quarrelsome dialogue, one that is not confined only to the censorship of art but also to cultural identity. He questions and attacks all systems of power, all the dangerous Utopia’s that seek to bring about an inhumane order, imposing laws and carrying them out with the weapons of terror and trauma.

Born in Sepsiszentgyörgy (St. George), Transylvania, in 1958, more than thirty years of his life was lived under Communist rule. As early as the 1970’s he chose to make art actions and instigated a number of sporadic events with other artists beyond the borders of the city. These happenings intended to be held beyond the eyes and ears of the feared Securitate, the security police, but with an estimated one in every five persons in the country coerced into being an informer to the State such aims were impossible to realise.

From 1977 to 1989 Ütö would plan meetings with students, artists, and intellectuals, in secret and beyond the reaches of the regime,

We would gather in forests and by the shore of Saint Ann Lake to discuss our freedom - as human beings, as individuals. But it was only a sentiment of freedom. We weren’t really free and we didn’t really believe we could be either, as a people or as a culture. The important thing was that we believed the artist was free, that was what we had to believe in (Ütö, 2008).

Overshadowed by an informant-culture that was manipulated by the regime these gatherings would be in constant danger of being discovered and punished. The fleeting optimism and kindredship that these small groups enjoyed was always eclipsed on their return to the towns as individuals were questioned by the Securitate about their comments spoken at the lake: “Why did you say such a thing about Ceauşescu at the lake? Why are you interested in these Western ideas? These ideas and artistic expressions are decadent, they are not good for the Party” (Ütö, 2008).

Ütö remembers his sleep at night being disturbed if he spoke to five people in one day, “I would toss and turn wondering which of the five I maybe shouldn’t have spoken to, that was the reality of the terror” (Ütö, 2008). The outcome of this cult of social and psychic terror was that many students were permanently dismissed from their studies and, because they now had a record of anti-State behaviour, no employer would take them on.

Effectively made outcasts in their own land, many would leave their homeland to find work in the black economies of Europe and North America: members of an unofficial, forced exile. Unable to criticize the State for fear of being marked unpatriotic, and thereby endangering their personal and family lives, their lot was to endure a disorienting social experience of inside and outside.

Out of position with the State, and by extension their country, they could no more feel ‘national’ than they could feel international: ‘foreignness’ became them during the Ceauşescu epoch. Increasingly artists began operating beyond any immediate audience and undertook actions to camera. These were not for display in their own time but with the aim that one day they would be able to share them with other artists.

After making the action I would hurry home to develop the film, examine the results and feel good about myself – that they [the State] couldn’t beat me. Then I would quickly hide them somewhere secret, hoping one day to be able to show them to other artists (Ütö, 2008).

Research (Babeti, cited in, (eds.) Pospiszyl & Hoptman, 2002) informs us that the origins of Romanian action art can be traced to the early 1960’s when a growing number of painters reacted against the official school of Socialist Realism. Abandoning representation of the human figure they increasingly “abandoned direct corporeal presence and revealed their alternative, which was the image mediated by photography or the moving picture” (Pintilie, 2001).

Our understanding of this change in practice can be extended to account for the increased intolerance of Ceauşescu’s system and the constant threat of beatings, social ostracization, punishment upon the artists family, or ‘rehabilitation’ in his psychiatric hospitals.

A recurring motif in the work of Ütö Gustáv is the Living Statue, an ongoing series of actions begun in 1981 and documented in hundreds of photographs. [Fig. 13] The artist performs a headstand for the duration of one minute in different sites: a bridge, a roadside, a jetty, the borders of towns and countries.

At these division lines, that mark the separation between one territory and another, the body of the artist transmits a particular discourse; it becomes at once both the subject and the object of the action. The subject presents the arrest, or suspension, of the subjective experience while, at the same time, we clearly understand that the bio-object lives and breathes, has cognition, a consciousness, and the free will to transform everyday subjectivity into a condition of stasis.

Behind the seemingly playful gesture, however, lies an act of defiance: subjectivity to the forces of authoritarian rule transgresses to the divine. The given and imposed order of space is challenged, it is turned on its head much like the very young child sees the world before ocular recognition merges with consciousness.

For the artist to manifest himself thus reveals not only a refusal to accept the unjust official law, but also the desire to see the world through the eyes of a child, an innocence that is far removed from the politicized and ideological world. It is a manifestation of the individuality of the artist to choose to see the world, as he wants it to be, if only for an ephemeral moment.

While the physical body present is not free to wander in the world, to marvel at creation and dwell with strangers, chained as it is to the decadence and privation of Ceauşescu’s ideology, the spirit is set free to see the world as if for the first time. To stand on one’s head is only possible for a short period of time, but as short as that is it is enough to reveal a time-base of action that imparts a particular understanding of the constraining context it was made in.

Implicit within the action is the awareness that hemorrhage and explosion is close. It becomes then, an illustration of the upright, subjective, context. The fear instilled in artists by the Ceauşescu regime necessitated that a well-developed economy of time and coherence was employed within art actions.

Whereas Ceauşescu’s Socialist Humanism would portray the figure of a peasant in the field as a symbol of national prosperity and collectivism, here we have the artist himself set within a similar landscape but upside down within it. The rotation of the body underscores the non-cooperation with the official realm and attacks its absurdity.

Similarly to our previous examples, the work of the highly influential Moscow based group Kollektivnye Deistvia (14) (Collective Actions, formed in Moscow in 1975) introduces us to a confrontation with the Communist project, and in this case, with the nature of collectivization. Kollektivnye Deistvia captures our attention on two fronts.

Firstly, within their name we are immediately introduced to what Tupitsyn cites as the emergence of a “’contractual communality’ [or] ‘optional communalization’” (Tupitsyn, cited in, (eds.) Rosenfeld & Dodge, 1995, p. 87) that is distinct to official, ideologically driven, collectivism. Somewhat mirroring the socializing principles of Czechoslovakia’s second culture movement, he notes a counter approach to the official realm became, “the ecological niche for Muscovite alternative art over the course of three decades – right up to perestroika” (Tupitsyn, cited in, (eds.) Rosenfeld & Dodge, 1995, p. 87).

Secondly, a transgressive role is ascribed to the audience where the passive experience of viewing is replaced by an active participation in the authoring of the work and its ontology. The replacing of audience with participant in performance (and art more generally) is most emphatically revealed historically in the democratised art promoted by Happenings. In Happenings there is no attention given to extravagant technique or material form but rather it acts as an abstract and aesthetic reflection of the spirit of those involved, including the audience.

It is, of course, human nature to wish to express individuality, as too is the need to belong to a group, and to contribute to the group, since individually we do not possess the collective ability that is required to shape our world. Karl Marx understood the need for individual freedom as an essential component of a fair society but was determined that such liberty could only exist if a conscious human control was exerted over social and, in his view, economic relations.

Wood (1985) shows that Marx’s idea of freedom exists solely within a collective, or community, and “cannot be attained by retreating into oneself or by the exercise of one’s self-determination within the confines of a jealously guarded ‘private domain’” (Wood, 1985, p. 52). Thus, a collective action implies that those involved in it are linked together through a common purpose, and will jointly resolve to accomplish its aims on an equal and interdependent basis.

The performances of Kollektivnye Deistvia are first experienced by invitations received by a small number of selected people, and later through the meticulous retrieval and editing of its documentation. Possibly their most well-known works are in the series Trips Out Of Town (1976-ongoing) that, until the mid-1990s when it underwent development, took place in a field on the outskirts of Moscow. (15)

The theorist of the group, Andrej Monastrysky, refers this aspect of journey and encounter to the restrictions on travel that were in place at the time in the Soviet Union,

Since travelling is restricted in Russia we decided to initiate [travelling] it by going outside and constructing imaginary ‘cities’, that is our performances (Monastrysky, cited in, Godfrey, 1998, p. 268).

Participants would be instructed to take a train ride to a nearby station and to then walk towards a designated space within the field. On arrival at their predetermined destination the participants are faced with an expanse of ‘emptiness’ that after a short time is animated by a number of careful and precise maneuvers involving both the members of Kollektivnye Deistvia and the participants.

A ringing electric bell or tape recorder buried under snow or earth is a recurring motif, “the ‘sounding’ of silence” (Pritchard, 2006). The appearance of group members and the audience at specific times and places becomes marked by a critique of our sensate experiencing of the world through choreographed encounters with presence and absence. It considers what has been lost to us in the modern world,

In everyday life, the apparition of people and objects near us does not excite the slightest spiritual emotion. This action has been planned with the aim of bringing back this emotion (Monastrysky, cited in Pritchard, 2006).

A series of pre-written instructions are delivered to the participants at the scene that tell them, for example, to walk as they unravel a ball of string or sturdy thread until it runs out. Their walk leads them past ‘appearances’ of group members that are imperceptible to the others, and often also to the other group members, and then into the darkness of the woods. As the events draw to a close participants are presented with a document that verifies that they were there. ‘The appearance of X in Y at Z time and date’ [Fig. 14], or, at other times, drawings, maps, or photographs are presented as trace documents.

The latter, that apparently show them at the time they entered the field, and one at a time, would have been impossible to do technically at the time (it was before the digital era) so, on a previous day the group members had gone to the field and photographed themselves from a far off distance in the places the instructions would later lead the participant viewers to.

The intent was to introduce mystery and a sense of the uncanny: it could have been me standing there since I have definitely been in that place and stood in that spot. This engagement with time and place slippage is further examined in Slogan 1977, [Fig. 15] an event where the group tied a 1m x 10m banner between trees that read,

I do not complain about anything and I almost like it here, although I have never been here before and know nothing about this place (Kollektivnye Deistvia, 1977).

And later, in April 1978, [Fig. 16] a 1m x 12m banner was tied between more trees,

I wonder why I lied to myself that I had never been here and was totally ignorant of this place – in fact, it’s just like anywhere else here, only the feeling is stronger and incomprehension deeper (Kollektivnye Deistvia, 1978).

The interesting point to these works is that the location of the texts has changed while the conceptual strategy and poetic sense remains clear. Similarly, the buried bell or tape recorder has neither been announced to the participant-viewers, nor can be seen.

The expectation among the participants tends towards the ocular and compels them to take in all of their surroundings. Since they do not know that they are in close proximity to the bell, and are dwelling still at that moment in a visually-biased world, they may credibly expect an appearance by the group or to see visual elements installed somewhere within the landscape.

The looking for clues, the straining of eyes, overwhelms the senses through their absence to the point that everything visible begins to slowly merge with other sensoria until the sound of the ringing bell enters the consciousness, as part of the environment.

The challenge set upon the proximity senses confronts the hegemonic status of the visual world that assumes that everything can be knowable. The pre-modern world was a place of mysticism and magic, where elemental phenomena were regularly experienced as a part of everyday life. Kollektivnye Deistvia’s contemporary reactivation of the supernatural, or strangeness, then acts as “facts of art opposed to facts of reality that cannot be explained but only interpreted” (Groys, 1979). A similar path is tread where ritual affords an,

Almost mystical practice [that] completely coincides in time with its cold, analytical study. These functions are absolutely simultaneous and just as absolutely at odds with each other (Dyogot, 2000).

This, and the lack of an art market, accounts to some degree for the re-emergence of a mystic sensibility that characterizes the practices of the Moscow Conceptualist movement since, “only artists like us can survive here because we do not make ‘things’, but rather perceive art as one form of existence” (Monastrysky, cited in, Godfrey, 1998, p. 269).

The laborious and pitiless linear time of the official realm is cast aside for the same reasons that official collectivism is opposed: neither allows for the multiplicity of histories that are contained within a single event. Any group of individuals will differ in their accounting of a historic act or performed event despite having jointly witnessed it.

Kollektivnye Deistvia encourages this responsibility of reporting in the participants, ensuring that the individual and collective experience of the audience is implicated directly in the historicizing of the work. [Fig. 17]

The intention, we might say, is to reflect personal and historical change in the world through a dialogic interaction of different consciousnesses. The press release for the 1997 exhibition of their documentation, held at Exit Art (16) in New York frames it thus,

The peculiarity of Soviet performance lies in its attempt to demonstrate the conditional mood of the perception as such and the evolution of various stereotypes of human behavior against the background of official ideology… Linking performance with ritual, the Collective Actions performances were spiritual acts aimed to create an atmosphere of unanimity among the participants and to serve as a vehicle for directing consciousness outside the boundaries of intellect (Backstein & Elagina, 1997).

In the written accounts of the performances, constructed from the notes of both the group and the participants, we can see that the texts are not so concerned with factual detail but with “the experiences, thoughts, and emotions of those who took part in them - and as a result, they had a strongly narrative, literary character” (Groys, 2002, p. 109)

This is especially pertinent since actions are developed and unfold in such a way that not all present can directly witness. This is the crucial point; there is no collectivism capable of one unitary truth for the collective is a hybrid public that contains contradictory consciousnesses.

The point relates to truth, and about how we construct meaning from what we know to be there against what we might think is there, or are persuaded by others to believe is there or not.

The ecology of a Kollektivnye Deistvia performance is constructed through a series of predetermined actions undertaken by various people present in one time and space, but in such a way that not everything can be experienced by any one single person. The structure of this temporary collective projects a responsibility to each member to share his or her unique experience so that overall sense can be constructed. Requesting the participants to write down their experience then becomes one way through which they reach interpretation, as is the compiling and editing of the other documentary traces after the event.

This interpretative method merges with the predetermined, written instructions and reveals a central tenet in Kollektivnye Deistvia’s ethos; in order to prolong the life of the work each person, participant and artist, must acknowledge their experience as both a uniquely individual contribution and an experience that in itself is worthless.

It mirrors Kahout’s (2008) “complete socializing” of second culture and defies the unworkable logic of Communist ideology. That is, that there can be no privileging of one singular experience over another because all experiences are required to complete the work but at the same time each person must be recognized as having their own unique role to play in a process of a historical emergence. Set against the backdrop of the Communist project, that by its own philosophy is defined as emergence, Kollektivnye Deistvia encourage us to question why any such incompleteness might be capable of making a comprehensive record of anything.

At best we can say that history creates narrative based on incomplete information. Discovering that in fact they hadn’t actually experienced everything because each person had their own version of the event, and then discovering that other people had missed some of what they had experienced, sets a requirement for a new model of reading history. That is, that the more voices that can contribute sense about the past the better equipped we will be to understand it, and its effects on the present.

1 Ginsberg had just been expelled from Cuba for claiming that he had slept with Fidel Castro’s brother Raul. For an interesting account of Prague at that time as seen through an alternative music lens see, ‘The Plastic People of the Universe’ by Joseph Yanosik (Perfect Sound Forever: March 1996) Available at: | back |
2 Novotný was appalled by Ginsberg and instructed the secret police to arrest him on alleged public decency violations, ostensibly, drugs and drunkenness. While in custody his hotel room was burgled and his ‘morally dangerous’ writings confiscated, and subsequently expelled from the country on May 7th 1965. | back |
3 Mikhail Gorbachev would allude to this concept almost two decades later in his perestroika period. | back |
4 Dubček was demoted to a forestry job and constantly followed by secret police. Stories abound about how he would ride the tram to work and offer up his seat to the equally weary security personnel who followed him. | back |
5 A list of resistance strategies to the occupation included; changing road signs to confuse troops, warning troops not to drink water because ‘counter-revolutionaries’ had poisoned it, but in the end even their best efforts were crushed. See, VanHise (n.d.) Nonviolence in Czechoslovakia, 1968. | back |
6 For his efforts Benda was imprisoned and the state clamped down on any hint of such structures. | back |
7 Ivan Jirous was the artistic director of the seminal Czechoslovakian psychedelic underground band The Plastic People of the Universe. He was a prominent organizer in the Czech underground. | back |
8 However, Piotrowski (2006) demonstrates that this terminology is a problem insomuch as ‘Body art’ was primarily an American construct and, even although it was applied to art actions in Eastern Europe it makes little sense.
“The term [body art] was adopted in Eastern Europe at the time but was differently defined and interpreted. And people were informed about them in a very different way. Yugoslavs were completely in the know about art trends in the west, whereas in Romania or Hungary there were many difficulties to have an idea about them. In those countries if someone wanted to access information then they did it with the help of Polish literature, particularly Czechs and Hungarians. The reason was that in Poland there was no censorship of art historical research, in contract to Czechoslovakia where the authorities were particularly strict in this regard” (Piotrowski & Mayer, 2006) | back |
9 Newsreels were not broadcast until months after the event, and only came to light after 1989. | back |
10 Because Poland’s President at the time, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, was a former Communist Party dignitary, the family of Siwiec refused to accept the (2003) Order of Polonia Restituta Commander’s Cross award. His other awards include; (2001) Order of Tomáš Garrique Masaryk, from the President of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel; and (2006) Order of the White Double Cross, from the President of Slovakia, Ivan Gašparovič. | back |
11 The remains of Jan Palach were exhumed by the secret police, cremated, and sent to his mother’s house in the countryside where she was forbidden to bury them in the local churchyard until 1974, an act that most brutally reasserted the State’s hold on the domestic realm. | back |
12 A memorial stone honours his martyrdom in the centre of Prague. | back |
13 The Ceauşescu regime (1965-1989) proposed a strict model of citizenship built upon an abusive labor economy coupled with an equally abusive policy of forced human reproduction in order to fuel that labor, the result of which was the explosion of the well publicized orphanage system which served only to attract further abuses. At first courted as the maverick Soviet State by the West as it was highly critical of Soviet influence, Ceauşescu was rewarded with overseas State visits. His increasingly erratic behaviour caused his foreign backers (including Great Britain and the United States) to drop him. He then became obsessed with clearing all the country’s foreign debt incurred during the courtship. A policy of refusing to spend hard currency resulted in, among many things, grossly inadequate medical provision and the most basic of general health care. | back |
14 The group has a fairly flexible structure that has seen its composition change at times but chiefly its main members have been Nikita Alekseev, Georgii Kiezvalter, Andrei Monastrysky, Nikolai Panitkov, Igor Makarevich, Elena Elagina and Sergei Romashko. | back |
15 When the field was cleared for development the ‘trips’ were staged at an urban roundabout and an urban forest. | back |
16 The exhibition was held at Exit Art, New York, July 18 - September 20, 1997. | back |


Ivan Martin Jirous
Ryszard Siwiec

Tomáš Ruller
Thich Nhat Hahn
Stefan Bertalan
Collective Actions

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