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.

ÜTÖ Gusztáv - “The Artist Is Free”

action art


Born 1958, in Sepsiszentgyörgy (St. George), Transylvania, more than thirty years of ÜTÖ Gusztáv's life was lived subject to the ideology of Ceausescu's Romania. In conjunction to this, and as early as the 1970's, he chose to manifest the individual Self through the making of Art Actions and began instigating a number of random events with other artists beyond the borders of the city. These happenings were to be held beyond the eyes and ears of the state security police, the Securitate, but with an estimated one in every five persons in the country coerced into being a State informer such aims were almost impossible to realise. In 1990, the year following the revolution, or more precisely the coup d'état, that saw the overthrow of Ceausescu's Stalinist regime (1965-1989) these became legitimised international performance festivals held annually at St Ann Lake. The primary purpose of these events was to fulfil a long awaited dialogue with the world that would reach beyond the boundedness of life under the previous regime. ÜTÖ's production makes him one of the foremost artists in the country while internationally he represents Transylvania region.

In Ceausescu's Romania there was no sanctioned place for individualism or the uniqueness of the human spirit and endeavour. The totalitarian regime proposed a strict model of citizenship built upon an abusive labour economy that, coupled with an equally abusive policy of forced human reproduction in order to fuel that labour, resulted in the explosion of a harrowing and much publicised orphanage system that itself served only to attract further abuses. At first courted as the maverick Soviet State by the West, the IMF, EC, GATT, and World Bank, rewarded with State visits to the UK and North America and then dropped, Ceausescu became obsessed with clearing all foreign debt incurred during the courtship. A policy of refusing to spend hard currency resulted in, among many things, grossly inadequate medical provision, public services, and basic general health care.

Artists during that period were expected to portray a State directed socialist-realism success story of the economic policies and the happiness of the worker. A few among them however would not tolerate such sham or instruction and concerned themselves with a clandestine artistic revolt against the State in order that their spirit – both in art and in life - would be free. Such artist's would make actions to identify their identity to themselves, to re-materialise the Self. Given the personal risk they endured these actions would most usually take place only to camera or in the presence of one or two trusted friends or assistants. ÜTÖ describes the reality of the situation,

“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 the photographs somewhere secret, hoping one day to be able to show them to other artists.”

What then drives an artist-individual to operate under such intolerant and extreme circumstances? Why would the artist choose to remain and work in such an apparently impoverished and dangerous context while other artist's had either long fled the country or succumbed to the dictate of the State? And where does the mental strength to carry on such endeavour spring from?

“The artist is free”, proclaims ÜTÖ Gusztáv. A defiant slogan born of oppression it was the only thing he could believe in to overcome the conditions of everyday life. Perhaps such energy erupts from a controversy with the world - a quarrelsome dialogue, not confined to intellectualising, but rather an argument that questions and attacks all systems of power, all the dangerous ideologies and Utopia's that seek to bring about an inhumane order, imposing laws and carrying them out with the weapons of terror and trauma. Performance, or Action Art and its related activities, are dependent on dialogic interaction and extend beyond the spatial-temporal matrix of where the act is performed. Dialogue is central to the construction of meaning of the art activity: the answerable act manifest by the artist always has an addressee. Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) frames answerability thus,

“I must engage in constant dialogue with the world as it is given to me; only in this way can I give my own life meaning and value. My answer, furthermore, will always have an ‘addressee'. I have a responsibility to answer.” (1)

Within this context then personality is the mark by which all processes of experience, action, and intellect defines the actual deed performed by the Self, and through which is determined the quality of being a unique person. Another way to say it would be that the Performance artist attempts to understand characteristically and dialogically the world as uniquely experienced by them within their own time, space, and history. It is thus how we can put art and life together as a process of ‘emergence' (2). That art and life are not separate but constituent parts in the unitary and unique event of Being. It is also how we can treat Performance documents as evidence to which we might look in order to understand the world we share but do not directly experience. As such then, in terms of how we derive meaning from a piece of work, it may not be so important to witness the event first-hand as it is to have a more informed reading through consideration to the relational dynamics of a particular life experience, its manifest artistic production and documentation, to ascertain the locus of meaning.


During the cultural clampdown of the Ceausescu regime and in the period following the events of December 1989 ÜTÖ's activities are divided approximately in half. From 1977 through to 1989 he would plan meetings with students, artists, and intellectuals, in secret and seemingly beyond the reaches of the regime.

“We would gather in forests and by the shores of St 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.”

Overshadowed by the informant culture these assemblies would be in constant threat of infiltration and punishment by the Securitate. Such optimism as the participants showed was always eclipsed on their return to their towns as individuals were questioned about comments spoken at the lake – “Why did you say such a thing about Ceausescu?; Why are you interested in these Western ideas of art?; These ideas and artistic expressions are not good for the Party; Such art is decadent…” ÜTÖ Gusztáv remembers it being a common experience to have his sleep at night disturbed if he had spoken to five people in one day.

“You'd toss and turn wondering which of the five you maybe shouldn't have spoken to. That was the reality of the terror.”

The outcome of this cult of social and psychic terror was that many students were permanently dismissed from their studies, and now bearing a record of anti-State behaviour were effectively unemployable and untouchable, making them outcasts in their own land. Mostly they would leave their homes and travel to other countries to find work in the black economies, members of an unofficial enforced exile.

In 1980 ÜTÖ Gusztáv arranged for a group of friends to meet at the town bus station and bring with them as much coloured paper as possible. They rode to a neighbouring village and walked to the site of a ruined monastery in Kàlnok. There they set about transforming its broken appearance with the coloured papers. At first consideration this might seem like a harmless, or even prankish, intervention, and in some ways may have been it's design, a playfully childish manoeuvre. But if we contextualise it within the State's discrimination against a ‘decadent and abstract art' and individual volition then this simple action assumes a more defiant, argumentative, and politically charged gesture. The body of the artist could not be allowed to go to ruin and decay. The metaphor insists that the artist must take responsibility for the restoration of the society they find themselves in, that ruin and privation must make way for a renaissance, colour replace the shadows. The action, dated February 1980, lasted three hours and is documented in seventy-two coloured slides. In the artist's archive where usually one would expect to read the name and date of where the work was undertaken this action is recorded as “NO PUBLIC/SECRET”.


A recurring motif in the work of ÜTÖ Gusztáv is the ‘LIVING STATUE', an ongoing series of actions begun in 1981. In these works the artist performs a headstand of one minute duration in different sites - a bridge, a roadside, a shoreline, the borders of towns and countries. At these division lines that mark the threshold between one territory and another, between energies, the artist turns the world upside down. The body of the artist as subject becomes material object. But it is material that lives and breathes, has cognition, a consciousness, and exercises free will to transform everyday subjectivity into a condition of stasis and arrest the horizontality of the world of function and routine.

Unique within the context of the former Soviet bloc countries, Romania was essentially closed to the outside world. Travel beyond the bloc countries would require special permission and the traveller to produce an unrealistically large sum of money to leave the country. Within this context freedom to travel was very limited, where the individual is effectively locked within their country. Another playful gesture the headstand is a further act of defiance by the artist and what Bakhtin refers to as ‘Being-as-event'. The body's subjectivity to the forces of divine and human power is objectified and turned on its head. The given and imposed order of space is challenged, it is seen upside down, much like the very young child sees the world before adopting complexities of vision. For the artist to manifest himself thus reveals not only a refusal to accept man's laws over territory but also reveals the desire to see the world through the eyes of a child, of a perceived innocence. 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. All rules are suspended, all oppression defeated, all territory open. Lightness and laughter enter the world as Being-ness communes with volition to transcend the world of man. While the physical body present is not free to wander in the world and be stupefied by the clack of strange tongues, or to marvel at creation and dwell with strangers, chained as it is to excesses of political ideologies and their social deconstructions, the spirit is set free to see the world as if for the first time. In his writings on medieval Carnival, Bakhtin makes the distinction between the language of the State and that of carnival laughter: employing the rhetoric of violence and control the State never employs the idiom of laughter.

“It was the victory of laughter over fear that most impressed medieval man. It was not only a victory over mystic terror of God, but also a victory over the awe inspired by the forces of nature, and most of all over the oppression and guilt related to all that was consecrated and forbidden (‘manna' and ‘taboo'). It was the defeat of divine and human power, of authoritarian commandments and prohibitions, of death and punishment after death, hell and all that is more terrifying than the earth itself. Through this victory laughter clarified man's consciousness and gave him a new outlook on life. This truth was ephemeral; it was followed by the fears and oppressions of everyday life, but from these brief moments another unofficial truth emerged, truth about the world of man which prepared the new Renaissance consciousness.” (3)

The manifestation of this ‘unofficial truth' is what the ‘LIVING STATUE' is about. It says, that which we must do is not what we will to be done. It turns away from the boundedness of geo-political and national identity that serves to include some while excluding others. Identity for a brief moment becomes physical space. Territory, in the world of man, is past: the artist makes the world uniquely his own: it is at once his answer and address to the world as given him.


In 1990 ÜTÖ Gustáv and three other Transylvanian artists were invited to travel to Arnheim in what would be their first international art participation since regime collapse only months previously. The show was titled ‘ROMANIA AFTER REVOLUTION'. ÜTÖ Gustáv recalls the group's stay and how the organisers were concerned as to why they all looked angry and enquired of them what was wrong.

“We had to tell them, ‘We're not angry, this is how we look'. They didn't understand that our faces reflected the social trauma we lived through, or that the freedom we had just been given could be so shocking to deal with. We looked like animals.”

Their hosts apparently had not expected to see such indexical trace of just how deep the trauma had cut. Unable to criticise the State for fear of being marked unpatriotic and thereby endangering their personal livelihoods their lot was to endure a social experience that was a queer mixture of inside and outside. Out of position with the State, and by extension their country, the individual could no more feel ‘national' than they could ‘international' with the outside world: ‘foreignness' became them during the Ceausescu epoch. This trauma no doubt explains what we might call a pathological drive on the part of ÜTÖ Gusztáv to make art Actions as a way of meeting the world in answer and address, and illustrates an elemental part in the personality of this artist.

One year after his visit to Arnheim, in 1991, ÜTÖ Gusztáv was one of a group of Transylvanian artists invited to participate in the TransArt Communication International Performance Festival in Slovakia. He recalls carrying to the festival a sense of inferiority: the compound trauma of the mental conditions imposed by the regime had left him questioning his place amongst international contemporaries.

“We were a new colour in the international performance world. We were colouring the ideas of the ‘foreignness' of Transylvania. We didn't know where we stood in regards to Western Performance Art - it all seemed so distant. Although Performance from our point of view was actually no different - art can be minimal, or abstract, or autobiographical…it can be about the environment, society, politics, ecology, gender issues, and so on…it wasn't about that. That much we already knew. What we didn't have was the luxury of knowledge that the Western artists had. We didn't have access to the facts, as it were. All we had was our own very personal and very secret knowledge. We had a sense of shame that we weren't from an open society. We were primitive.”

But while the vision had always been of such international dialogue - dialogue in the towns even among friends proving impossible because of the informant culture – the experience of their everyday conditions had not prepared them for the experience of presenting work to an audience. Looking "like animals… primitive… secret… a sense of shame… inferior”, it is the distressing language of trauma that recounts these experiences. (4)


If trauma can be said to be similar to hallucination in so much as events place the subject - the individual or social group – in a state of suspension beyond reason then we could suppose that to have lived within the structures of such an extreme ideology was simultaneously hallucinatory and traumatic. To go beyond the confinement of a deep wound requires nothing less than an act of exorcism through which the Self is reconstructed and made well. Immediate relief from psychological suffering is not the primary aim nor the desired outcome, as it does not allow for rehabilitation from the memory of wounding. It is not about erasure of the facts, nor is it about shutting them out by covering over the wound. Consciousness of the facts is of prime importance in the recovery period. Veridical space is where dreams or hallucinations coincide with reality. It suggests a period of unspecified duration wherein the wound is both seen and is being acted on. It holds a promise of a future where the past can be talked about from recovered distance while also retaining the trace of suffering but free from the shock.

In 1987 ÜTÖ Gusztáv directed the actent, CSIKI Sàndor, in an action titled ‘WAKE UP' that was recorded in five black and white photographs. As in several works the artist did not perform the physical action himself for a number of reasons. Firstly, such work as being prohibited it was necessary that it be performed in secret and in as short a time as possible were it to be manifest in public space. Secondly, the need for the artist's eye to be in the visual documentation was of critical importance as there wasn't the luxury of time or finances to repeat or re-stage the action should the photographic recording not be clear enough.

In ‘WAKE UP' the actent serves as evidence of the artist's physical presence and psyche. Directing the actent to lie on the forest floor the artist covered the horizontal corpse-like form with fallen leaves. The curled and dried leaves have more recent connection to life than the bodies laid out funeral form we just manage to make out by a slight sight of the head through the leaves. There is light and shadows falling over the site where the human body lies. It informs us of the cult of secrecy that was prevalent in the country at that time and into which conditions the action was subject. There is no horizon, only gradient darkness. Within the shadows and the light a play of death and resurrection is suggested as in much religious art: the lifeless corpse awaits transport of its soul to a place beyond. Its condition now suggests one of material non-existence. In this first image it is not possible to predict where this redemption might come from. The body buried under the leaves of the forest is at once awaiting a ritual deliverance from the modern world and a recovery of man to the forces of nature.

In the second and third of the five photographs we see the actent begin to slowly rise from the horizontal position of death, his own body casting shadows behind him, as if throwing off an exhausting weight. In his rising the subject has turned now from the anticipation of a heavenly salvation to a more laboured and human riddance of terror. This is not the smooth and bodiless transcendence as promised by deities but a supreme physical and human effort in ascent. Muscles tense and strain and limbs rely on one another for balance. We can understand the cognitive mind that is behind the direction and pace of this bodily movement. There is no scurrying among the shadows, no rush towards the light. It is a considered awakening, and one that, in the fourth image, when the body has assumed its full position of verticality as a living thing once more, observes sympathetically its surrounding environment. In the fifth and final image the upright body has turned ninety degrees to face us. We clearly see on the body the traces of the grave wherein it was laid. Where the flesh retains the marks of desolation and abandonment a new light enters the image: that of the human spirit. In the face and poise there exists an invitation and encouragement to follow, to engage with, and to meet the responsibly to answer the world as given and to make it anew.

The action was made two years before the fall of Ceausescu, a period that saw some of the worst excesses of privation and violence towards the citizenry.

It is only in the years following regime change that anyone apart from the artist and a few friends have seen the documentation of this work. The photographic record brings to us the feelings of alienation that the peoples from Romania were forced to endure. It reveals an insistence on the defeat of the horizontal time of politicised history and claims instead an awareness of, and return to, vertical time. Society is the institution that contains us all, where difference is disregarded in favour of order and function. Within an art context we can understand how the artist's personality easily mistrusts the closure inherent in this conservative model as it seeks not only to contain events and lives in an ordered and horizontal linearity, but by implication acts to exclude many more. This of course is alien to the lived experience of simultaneity where past, present, and future coexist alongside states of being such as memory and reflection. The personality of the artist seeks to arrest this horizontal frame set by society, by the worlds of power and oppression, and to move away from cause and effect, beginning, middle, end. They battle to free themselves from the containment of a linear index and to open up a vertical time frame. A time frame where past, present, and future coexist; a dialogic space where there are states of being to do with dreams, emotion, veridicality, simultaneity, trauma, and psychic phenomena – a space where the past continues to exist in the present and contributes to every future moment.


During Ceausescu's reign the artist would hide his photographic records in a different town out of sight of the Securitate and their informers. Seeking a dialogue with the world seemed at times to be an endless and impossible task. The idea of there ever coming a day when international artists could meet and share concerns as equals seemed at best a remote reality. From the early happenings of the late 1970's until 1990 it must have seemed at times that the bridge to the world would never be built, and coherent and creative dialogue with the world beyond Romania's borders would never be achieved. In 1990, Transylvanian artist BAÁSZ Imre (5) (1941-1991) initiated the first legalised art meeting at St Ann Lake. AnnART International Performance Days, later to become International Living Art Festival, was held on the eastern bend of the Carpathian mountain range where St. Ann Lake occupies a volcanic crater on Mount Ciumatu.

“In the past the volcanic crater, site for the AnnART performances, was a last outpost of pagan ritual. For the ancestors of today's performers, shamanism, sacrifice, drums, rattles, bells and being in touch with the wind was an everyday occasion. Into all this the Pope put his chapel…This is why we chose the feast of St. Ann as the date for the event: the Catholic procession, the four o'clock mass, the church bells, the colourful banners, the voice of the priest magnified by the microphone and the singing of the congregation form part of a canonic happening, contrasting with the sainted freedom of art, which embraces the actions of the AnnART performers.” (6)

The first year of the festival was given over to artists from Romania as a site to meet publicly and make art actions. For the first time since the events of December 1989 such a gathering would take place without the threat of intimidation or reprisal. The ethos behind the festival was that it would be an identifying space where ideas could be aired and shared between artists and public. It was a decisive and important first step in taking control of their lives after the collapse of the regime. The responsibility on the part of the organisers was no small matter and, in light of such recent and profound changes, to organise such an event was a tremendous undertaking of responsibility. Most important of all though was that this would be a space of the people, not an institutional space of laws and prohibitions, but as a vent for the utterances of the assembled crowd.

In medieval times institutions, eager to avoid an uprising or rebellion among the citizenry and retain their stature, would sanction Carnival activity on certain day's of the year. Such activity would be celebrated in ways that at other times outside Carnival time would be considered subversive: the mocking of civil and social ceremonies; the rituals of the Church; the fool; billingsgate; and laughter as a way to defeat everyday oppression and terror. Bakhtin proposes that Carnival is in fact a ‘second world'.

“Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people. While carnival lasts, there is no other life outside it. During carnival time life is subject only to its laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom. It has a universal spirit; it is a special condition of the entire world, of the world's revival and renewal, in which all take part.” (7)

Into this suspension of all that was hierarchical, official, and political, a tented village would spring up and for around five days the crowds would gather and camp together, sharing the ‘sainted freedom' and dialogue. At night the warmth of many fires became spaces of identity as people would meet and talk, drinking and sharing the joys and confusions that were to become apparent during the early days of managing a new reality. Whether rain, sunshine, wind or cold, a huge number of people would descend on the site from all over the country. Others would return briefly from exile in countries such as Hungary, Germany, and Austria, for a summer holiday, to see old friends, and to take their own part in this phenomenon.

Following the death of BAÁSZ Imre, ÜTÖ Gusztáv led the AnnART organising committee and founded the ETNA Alternative Artist Group in his memory and installed him as a posthumous member. ETNA, along with a great number of assistants – translators, graphic designers, photographers, sponsors, hosts - staged the event each July. The event would provide access to a more temporal experience of art making that had previously remained out of reach of the majority of the audience. Artists from many corners of the world participated and brought with them diverse arts practices and cultural experiences. The decision was made by ÜTÖ Gusztáv to call a halt to the AnnART International Living Art Festival after the event in 1999.

“It was important that the spirit of the festival did not become tamed or viewed as an institution.”

The lead had been given: the world of art and life beyond Romania's borders had been generously introduced to everyone who attended – artists and public – and supportive national and international networks between artists had formed. When explaining the international mission of AnnART, ÜTÖ Gusztáv again cites the architectonics of dialogue, reflecting his aim in the years before the events of 1989 when he would make clandestine actions.

“The function of AnnART was to act as a bridge. To introduce the work and philosophies of artists from abroad to an audience who did not have the possibility to travel to see such work. They were certainly already aware of the plastic arts – drawing, sculpture, painting – but not Performance, or Action Art, which had been roundly dismissed by the previous regime. It was important too that we all meet with other cultures, it was important to show that they existed and to learn how they exist, after having been forced to spend so long in the dark.”


If events and experiences of the past inform our reading of the present it is worth looking closely at what events and whose experiences these might be. Architectonics as the science of how parts relate to form a dynamic whole has obvious parallels with ideas of simultaneity and non-linearity. Performance artists chose to make works that emphasise subjective will and the relationship of one subject to another. Within this context we can understand this to be dialogue. This text has been concerned with where that intent lies and who the intended audience of these often-secret acts might be. Such documents as shown here make us audiences to performances that happened in other places, in other worlds, while at the same time providing for the artist access to those audiences who could not be physically present within the space/time matrix of the manifest act.

Text generated from interview with ÜTÖ Gusztáv, Sepsiszentgyörgy, and research into the archives of the artist and ETNA Foundation, July 2003.

1 Morris, P. The Bakhtin Reader: Selected writings of Bakhtin, Medvedev, Voloshinov (London: Edward Arnold, 1994) | back |
2 UK artist Roland Miller, theorises the point thus: “I see performance, or the performative action, as the central, visible point in many life processes. We start something, it develops, emerges into the light, outside our bodies, and then subsides, disappears, dies. It is the crafted form of the phenomenon known simply as ‘the performative'. The cycle repeats, and repeats, but that ‘emergence into the light', or appearance outside the body, is, I believe, the ‘actually occurring act', which is distinct from the theoretical, descriptive actions of observers.” Roland Miller, June 1996 | back |
3 ibid. The Bakhtin Reader: Selected writings of Bakhtin. | back |
4 In addition to this is the experience of being Transylvanian in Romania. Holding of a Romanian passport does not stop peoples of Transylvania from allying themselves with Hungary and not Romania despite feeling culturally and linguistically let down by both countries policies. Magyars, or Transylvanian Hungarians, account for around 1.6 million of the population in Romania. After World War 1 Hungary, which had ruled Transylvania for several centuries, lost half its population and two thirds of its land area. Transylvania was then united with Romania, an act that served only to intensify discrimination and the denial of the three Transylvanian Magyar communities – the Székely, the Csángó, and regular Magyars – their linguistic and cultural rights. | back |
5 Tragically, the following year, 1991, BAÁSZ Imre fell badly on a steep forest path and was hospitalised. A nurse administered an injection with an unsterilised needle causing chronic blood poisoning that resulted in his death a few days later. The policy of the Ceausescu regime not to spend hard currency resulted in a dearth of medical equipment, among it clean hypodermic needles. This alone counts for an estimated 7000 plus cases of HIV in the country, of which more than 6000 cases were in children under the age of twelve infected by unsterilised needles during a programme of “fortification” by blood transfusions. | back |
6 AnnART | back |
7 ibid. The Bakhtin Reader: Selected writings of Bakhtin. | back |


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