Life in Post-Totalitarian East-Central Europe and the Problems of Participation

Professor Amy Bryzgel
University of Aberdeen

Life in communist Eastern Europe was not the communal utopia promised in the propaganda. Rather, the surveillance state created a culture of suspicion and fear, causing people to keep to themselves and disengage. Participation was a choice that had to be made carefully, lest it have consequences for the individual partaking. While Jurgen Habermas characterized the “public sphere” as the social space where individuals come together to tackle the issues of contemporary society, in East-Central Europe, this manifested as a “second public sphere,” one that was rarely public, and usually existed underground or among small groups of close friends.1

Living in a constant state of suspicion had an impact on human relations in the community. Individuals would often have no idea whether their friends were truly their friends, or informants. These informants came in different shapes and sizes: some were professional, and some were in it for the benefits to themselves, such as the ability to travel abroad or special jobs, access to goods, or other privileges. Artists were not immune to this situation and often, as they were eager to travel abroad and see the artistic developments around the world, they would agree to provide the Secret Police with information upon their return, in exchange for permission to do so. Some reneged on this promise upon return, others gave innocuous information, and others still offered full, uncensored reports.

The surveillance state altered many of the regular rhythms and patterns of everyday life, and individuals learned to be cautious about every interaction. In an atmosphere such as this, getting individuals outside the artistic community to freely participate in artistic activities on the street, such as actions, happenings or situations, was particularly challenging. While in the US, happenings developed in an atmosphere that was already participatory, concurrently with the hippie movement, its love-ins and demonstrations, in East-Central Europe, examples of participatory art developed despite the circumstances, amid an atmosphere of fear and suspicion.

Any type of unusual activity taking place in public would have been viewed with misgivings not only by the authorities, but also by passersby, who would be keen to avoid involvement and even eye contact. A case in point is Czech artist Milan Knížák’s 1965 happening, A Walk Though Prague, which was interrupted by police when the participants were seen walking in circles on the pavement, circles that they had drawn themselves in chalk. At times, such unusual behavior would be overlooked by the authorities, because it would not even be considered art, however, in other instances—especially when taking place in public—it caused suspicion because of the fact that it diverged from the normative conformist behavior expected in communist countries.

There was a further danger to being “roped into” a work of participatory art in the street. As Czech art historian Tomáš Pospiszyl has noted, if such events were photographed, individuals would be aware that their image could end up in a secret police file.2

That said, participatory artworks did take place, and sometimes artists used creative ways to avoid suspicion and encourage involvement. The theatre group Akademia Ruchu (Academy of Movement), from Poland, organized artificial and unusual queues, echoing the real queues that would form in front of shops when word spread that they had sausages or other desired goods in stock. In the conditions of material deficit, grocery shopping was often a complex affair, demanding multiple trips to several shops, waiting in queues, and always carrying your mesh net bag with you because you never knew if you were going to pass a shop that suddenly had an influx of goods. While Akademia Ruchu’s queue blended in with the everyday fabric of life, it reversed the order of things, as the action’s title reflects, Queue Going Out of the Shop (Łódź, 1976). Nevertheless, because the sight of a queue was an everyday occurrence for passersby, they often were willing to join in, stating that they could stand at its head for “as long as they have time,” unwittingly participating in an art action.3

Akademia Ruchu, Queue Going Out of the Shop, action in Łódź, Poland, 1976. Image courtesy of Janusz Bałdyga.

Of course, the situation varied across the Eastern bloc. Since Poland and Yugoslavia remained among the most open countries of the region, public actions and participatory events did manage to take place. In Romania, however, the situation was quite different. Although in 1968 there were hopes that its communist leader, Nicolae Ceaușescu, would take a more liberal approach to his regime, when he refused to send troops to join the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, he soon came to rule with an Iron Fist. By the 1970s, much experimental art had become a hidden and clandestine activity, especially in the nation’s capital, which—as in all Eastern bloc countries—was the most heavily surveilled.

While in 1968, Romanian artist Paul Neagu created some public artworks, in the form of boxes that he placed on the street for viewers to open and interact with, by the 1970s this had become all but impossible. Neagu, an innovative performance artist, eventually emigrated to the UK, where he could pursue his artistic endeavors unencumbered, and eventually naturalized as a British citizen.

The atmosphere in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s, during the period of “Normalization” following the Warsaw Pact invasion, was similar to that of Romania. But prior to that, in the 1960s, artists pushed the boundaries of what was allowed by staging public performances and participatory actions, much like those by Milan Knížák, noted above. Slovak artist Július Koller found the realm of art an escape from the everyday, capitalizing on its potential to offer different experiences. He viewed sport as a cultural activity and one that had the potential to act as a model for communication in contemporary society. For example, games such as tennis and ping-pong, which he employed in his work, functioned as symbol of “democratic communication,” one that was “actually a sort of individualizing of this attempt at communication.”4

In the summer of 1968, just before the tanks rolled in to Czechoslovakia from neighboring Warsaw Pact countries, Koller staged the anti-happening Time/Space Definition of the Psychophysical Activity of Matter (Tennis), during which spectators were invited to the tennis court to watch Koller prepare the area, by repainting its lines, and then were invited to play tennis with him. After the tennis match, all present came together for a group discussion on the topic of “what is art?”

Two years later, he took this participatory art out of the public sphere and into the space of the art gallery. For one month in 1970, he transformed the exhibition space of the Galeria Mladých (Gallery of Youth) into a Ping-Pong Society where anyone was invited to come in and play the game with him. In his words, this was “the last time when it was still possible to address the public directly in normal art venues as part of the normal cultural life.”5

After that, the reality of the “Normalization” period set in, and Koller retreated toward more introspective projects, and as gallery spaces came under increasing scrutiny, there was less room for such experimental work. He was expelled from the Association of Fine Artists, along with a slew of other experimental artists, in sweeping crackdown on avant-garde activity. While Koller was trying to create a space in which people could come together in healthy discussion and exchange, this was exactly the opposite of what the authoritarian government wanted, because of their fear that the openness of exchange could potentially lead to dissent.

Another area of the Soviet bloc that at times enjoyed windows of freedom were the Baltic countries. In Soviet Estonia, between 1983 and 1986, Raivo Kelomees, together with several artists associated with the Tartu University Art “Cabinet”—a part of the university not connected with degree study—created around 30 actions, happenings and events in and around the city.6 Kelomees described all of these events as constituting “conscious artistic activity,” which was planned, scripted, photographed and recorded.7

Many of the events involved instructions, and quite often the participants would follow each instruction without knowing what was coming next. For example, one piece, entitled Railway Station/Box (February 16, 1984), started at the Art Cabinet: participants were given pieces of paper and instructions as to how to construct a cube from the paper. Then, they went to the railway station, where they were instructed to place their cubes in the luggage storage lockers and lock them away. Kelomees described this as something “on the edge of the allowed and the forbidden.”8

In general, these actions did not arouse suspicion, and no one complained about them. This is perhaps because of the fact that Tartu was somewhat removed from the capital city, as well as from Moscow, and also because of the changing political climate in the perestroika era. The level of tolerance for artistic experiment in Tartu, a thriving university town, was just slightly greater. However, Kelomees asserts that the government, and more specifically, the KGB, was not interested in their activity because it was not overtly political—although he knew that the KGB was aware of them.9 It is perhaps the “perfect storm” of apolitical student activity during a period of more freedom that kept their activities from interference, though other artists operating during these times did face intervention from the KGB.10

In 1986, in an action inspired by John Cage, Kelomees and Enn Tegova unraveled a large roll of white paper through the streets and squares of Tartu, creating an impromptu design with the cityscape as their canvas. In conversation, Kelomees recalled that the possibility of creating these events was exciting, as it offered him the chance to break out of his comfort zone and “build a parallel world,” much like the world Koller described.11

These parallel worlds created by artists across the Eastern Bloc offered a zone of freedom for them and their audiences, or participants in their actions. In the West, the conditions of participating in artistic activities, such as Allan Kaprow’s happenings, were similar to other rhythms of contemporary life in the 1960s and 1970s, a time of social activism, sit-ins and protests. Participation in unsanctioned activities in East-Central Europe, however, came with challenges to artists and risks to participants. In this sense, the early examples of participatory art in East-Central Europe discussed in this essay represent unique examples of art existing despite the odds. In spite of the fear of ending up in a police file or being detained for unusual activity, artists organized participatory events and others joined in, which just goes to show that creative expression always finds a way.

Professor Amy Bryzgel is Personal Chair in Film and Visual Culture at the University of Aberdeen. She is the author of numerous texts on performance art in East-Central Europe, including Performance Art in Eastern Europe since 1960 (Manchester University Press, 2017).
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  1. For more on performance art in the second public sphere, please see Katalin Cseh-Varga and Adam Czirak, eds. Performance Art in the Second Public Sphere: Event-Based Art in Late Socialist Europe (London: Routledge, 2018).
  2. See Tomáš Pospiszyl, “Look Who’s Watching: Photographic Documentation of Happenings and Performances in Czechoslovakia,” in Claire Bishop and Marta Dziewanska, eds., 1968-1989 Political Upheaval and Artistic Change (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 85.
  3. Malgorzata Borkowska, ed., Akademia Ruchu: City. The Field of Action (Warsaw: The Friends of Akademia Ruchu Association, 2006), 39.
  4. Július Koller, in conversation with Roman Ondák, in Július Koller, Július Koller:
    Univerzalne futurologicke operacie (Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther
    Konig, 1999), p. 137.
  5. Koller, interview with Ondák, 138.
  6. In an email exchange with Kelomees (June 10, 2019), he explained that “It functioned as alternative gathering place for students and city alternatives, arranged exhibitions and was place to hang out.”
  7. Raivo Kelomees, in an interview with the author in Tallinn, Estonia, October 6, 2013.
  8. Kelomees, in an interview with the author, October 6, 2013.
  9. Kelomees, in an email to the author, June 7, 2019.
  10. A good example of this is the work of Siim Tanel-Annus, who staged performances in the garden of his family home, which were interrupted by the police.
  11. Kelomees, in an interview with the author, October 6, 2013.

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