This article was written in the framework of East Art Mags in collaboration with Artalk.sk.
EAM’s programme was supported by Visegrad Fund.
In Budapest, if you meet with and talk to the artists, curators and other art professionals, it may surprise you, that the prevailing feeling is not the pessimism, which certainly would be justified. Hungarian art scene is in extremely challenging position. Few years ago, the internationally observed scandals of the present government establishment attracted lot of media attention, when unfit or questionable representatives were appointed into leading specialized positions of the most significant state art institutions (Műcsarnok/Kunsthalle Budapest or Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art, Budapest). As a result, a wave of demonstrations and protest campaigns has occurred on the Hungarian art scene. However, while the artists and activists succeeded to draw the attention on developments in the country thanks to (even artistically valuable) protest events, occupations or discussion forums, in the governmental cultural policy and the status quo of operation and directing of the institutions nothing changed. On the contrary, the situation has been gradually worsening.
Developments in the cultural policy from 2011 have led to the situation, in which even culture not administered by the state and non-governmental art infrastructure – organizations, initiatives, as well as individuals, is on the very brink of its existence in Hungary. Not only is significantly underfunded, but it is also purposely ignored by media, and therefore isolated from majority public and potential audience. Shortfall of finances in the independent cultural sphere is connected with the fact that many of its actors decided not to apply for the governmental grants, so they lost critical source of their income. More detailed and devoted information on this topic can be found in the articles of Gergely Nagy on Artalk website (in Czech) or Lívia Páldi for Magazyn Szum (in English). Affairs surrounding art institutions and related art protests have been covered also by Edit András on e-flux. Eszter Szakács in her texts (both in English) describes similar protest art activities, as well as other forms of organizations of defiance against the governmental cultural policy, or establishing initiatives as the parallel (unofficial) culture. Despite the gravity of the situation lacking any prospects for improvement in the near future and despite prevailing frustration from unsuccessful protests, on the art scene, there is still vitality and willingness to overcome all of this.
Several authors, and also people, whom I talked to during my stay in Budapest, noted, that this situation has revealed the fact, that art cannot be existentially dependent only on one source of support. At the same time, this kind of reliance is common for all countries in our region and any of them may easily fall into similar situation. Therefore, we should very carefully observe, what is happening on the Hungarian art scene.
Searching for solutions to break out of this dependency, or maybe rather alternatives to it, is also one of the main motivations for OFF-Biennále Budapest (OFF). OFF attempts to create an independent structure within the state and state cultural policy and to strengthen the entire art scene in this manner. It operates as a grassroots organization established by cooperation and mutual support of numerous actors on the art scene and (mostly during the first edition of OFF in 2015) is based on volunteers and unpaid work. At the same time, it sticks to the rule not to receive any support from state funds and state institutions. However, from its second edition, which took place during the autumn in 2017, the organizers aim for better sustainability and less self-exploiting model (also Lívia Páldi speaks about self-exploitation in the abovementioned article). And as opposed to the previous edition, which was mostly all-embracing platform for individual projects, the curatorial team has come up with an idea for a thematic focus. Gaudiopolis 2017 – The City of Joy formulated topics as civic awareness and social responsibility, communities and education, while it emphasized principles as play, playfulness and joy, as well as significance to target on children and their upbringing when aiming for better future. The curators drew inspiration from the ideological and moral message of a children home conceived as the children’s republic called Gaudiopolis, which was run in Budapest in the post-war period. Within this theme, the curatorial team compiled own programme line, the Hide and Seek project, which consisted of exhibition People Players about playing and playfulness, learning and learning new things through playing, and authorial projects of individual artists (some of them were realized during the Biennale) – individual exhibitions and performances. To give an indication of what kind of orientation the thematic concept of the Biennale had, I mention at least the Rebels project by Little Warsaw about the students´ riot, which took place at the Academy of Fine Arts in 1989/1990; The Curfew, a street theatre play by László Gergely and Katarina Ševic about the awakening of repressive apparatus and their decision to join the oppressed against the oppressors; or a work of Sári Ember documenting retention of cultural traditions of the Hungarian community living in Brazil. Source of inspiration for the Biennale, the Gaudiopolis children republic, was presented in the exhibition Somewhere in Europe in further details using archive and other documents, supplemented by contemporary art works (which in my opinion did not fit for this exhibition). Other significant part of the Biennale included exhibitions, workshops and projects prepared by other participants, which were chosen by curatorial team based on an open call. Setting the thematic concept by the curatorial team fulfills the intention of the Biennale to support development of theoretical discussion and discourse around contemporary art, but the selection of projects together with higher level of professionalism may signify also the risk to the key characteristics of this event, its openness and equal position of all its actors. On the other side, concept and questions related to preparation and realization were offered for a public discussion. For further details on concept, background and operating of the OFF-Biennale, I recommend to read the interview with its cofounder Hajnalka Somogyi.
Grassroots model of existence requires for its operation vital spawn – a developed infrastructure with plenty of capacities, collective spirit and ability to cooperate. Besides associated commercial galleries and concerned individuals, also few small initiatives and creative collectives contributed to the OFF-Biennale. During my short two-week stay in Budapest, I decided to focus on these self-constituted collectives, mostly those, which were founded over the last few years. Nourished by own enthusiasm, they look for ways of functioning and despite the heavy situation they try to actively join the developments of the art scene and to sustain it even without large, international events. Below, I describe (small) sample of some of them.
Nomadic strategies: Teleport
One of the most significant grassroots initiatives is the Teleport gallery, a project of four young curators (Tamás Don, Flóra Gadó, Vanda Sárai, Ferenc Margl). It is a gallery operating nomadically without a permanent exhibition space. On the other side, its projects focus on different formats of promotion and production of art beyond established gallery infrastructures, on site-specific context and its connotations. They refer to the neo-avantgarde exhibition practice from 60´s and 70´s in Hungary. Namely this legacy was referenced in their first exhibition Space Expansion, which took place in 2015 in the TIT culture center (opened during socialism) and it focused on the relation of the present society and art scene to the socialistic past. Their next project, which is worth mentioning, is (0) km, realized on the Clark Ádám square in Budapest, next to a sculpture, which symbolically marks the geographical center of the road network in Hungary and forms a big zero shape. The place represented a symbolical point, a starting point for critical questioning of moral anchor of present Hungarian politics, or continuous fights on re-defining bases of the social structure – in the form of performative interventions by authors Csönge Balla, Andi Schmied and Ferenc Gróf. Teleport gallery also participated in this year’s OFF-Biennale with an exhibition titled For me, Trianon…. It dealt with the still living or rather nourished theme of fall of the Kingdom of Hungary – rethinking of various aspects of territorial changes, coping with nationalism and its potential overcoming, asking to what extent this topic is still relevant today. Maybe the fact, that the exhibition was based on invitation for selected artists to supply works, which were according to them valuable for the project, meant, that the exhibition itself was in the end a bit confusing and some aspects, mostly those looking into the future and attempting to overcome nationalism, were not formulated sufficiently.
The activities of Teleport are interesting also in the sense of how it experiments with different forms of art promotion and its mediation to the public while it often operates in the Internet space – fostering the art critique through tweets, or creating art memes. Or the opposite strategy: private and informal discussion format Teleport afterwork, which in many aspects brings us back to the neo-avantgarde practice. Teleport also searches for possible solutions for operating and survival while attempting to stay away from financial support of state.
Similar nomadic principle works also for the Change-change initiative led by artists – a pop-up gallery organized by Sári Ember and Bruno Baptistelli; it´s been open for two years already and every year they prepare one group and one individual exhibition. Among other initiatives, they seemed to be extraordinarily successful in introducing international authors. While in 2016, their program took place in non-gallery spaces situated in the course of its end/transformation and focused on site-specific installations, in 2017 they prepared curated exhibitions in the Eleven Blokk Art Foundation gallery, which in more or less formal, visual and emotional way formulated such themes as the individuals dealing with global apocalyptic perspectives (exhibition Where is your god now?, curator: Germano Dushá).
Chance of a cultural hub: Eleven Blokk
Eleven Blokk Foundation operates in the 11th district of Budapest and it defines itself as an urban experiment. The foundation is run by cultural manager Daniel Ongjerth and visual artist Péter Mátyási. They provide affordable premises for artists and designers through a pretty much exceptional cooperation with the local council. The city district, which has unusually enlightened approach, by filling the long-term unused non-residential premises in the basements with art studios and also with a vision of cultural and community projects for residents, works towards improving the profile of this neighborhood, which is looked down upon by many. Now Eleven Blokk operates 10 premises (eleven means lively in Hungarian), which are mostly used as art studios. One of them develops own program oriented at visual technology or zine-publishing under the Meetlab trademark. In other basement at the Kende street, a temporary exhibition space can be found and its program at the moment consists mainly of occasional hosting of other exhibition projects – the Eleven Blokk hosted OFF’s Stranger in the Middle of Nowhere exhibition by Lilla Szász and Judit Hidász. However this place is going to be refurbished and together with the curatorial team they plan to introduce a permanent exhibition programme and its concept is still being formulated. Their next vision is to take care of other residential programs. It could be said, that Eleven Blokk is in its sight becoming a cultural hub with specific functioning, without any unifying space, but on the contrary despersively diffused in the entire locality.
The feminist oriented gallery FERi is a project by curator Kata Oltai, who used to work for Ludwig Museum Budapest until 2012. FERi (the name refers to the short version of the common male fist-name Ferenc / Francis) has been operating since September 2016 in a small space at the 8th city district, and despite minimum conditions, it exerts a consistent and coherently structured program. In its focus there are short-termed exhibitions, mostly by female authors, formulating societal critique from feministic perspective, while it deals primarily with Hungarian and often lesser known artists – during my visit, there was exhibition of works by young intermedia artist Barbara Mihály. Other independent exhibition line called FERi szereti (Feri likes…) which is a series of short-termed exhibitions of specific works by female authors, which are according to Kata Oltai an important contribution within the present context and developments in contemporary art and should be inevitable part of the canon. Within this line, works by Mária Chilf and Roma painter Omara were presented. Moreover, FERi has film screenings (so far documentary profiles of significant female artists) and finally, talks with lesser known and eminent persons, who have contributed to the formation of feministic movement in Hungary.
Youth go underground: Pince and MŰTŐ
In addition to these galleries and projects, also the youngest generation of students or recent graduates of art or curatorial studies manage their premises. It is more or less spontaneous enthusiastic activity, so their program and concept is formed on the fly, or in the process and an important place is taken by social and/or community aspect.
The Pince (Basement) gallery is run by a group of art students at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts and in this small exhibition place, which consists of one room in basement next to the Széll Kálmán square, they provide a space for individual exhibitions of young artists or for projects by the youngest generation of curators.
MŰTŐ (Operation lab) is a new initiative and it is pretty similar to the Pince: an exhibition space run by a bigger group of artists (Lili Agg, Nikolett Balázs, Bence Barta, Ron Fischer, Blanka Győri, Bence Kala, Noémi Rácz, Veronika Romhány, Nóra Teplán) and a curator Zsófia Kókai in addition to their studios in a former industrial facility Heinrich Udvar just opposite the art nouveau building of Museum of Applied Arts in Budapest. MŰTŐ exists for a year and during this time the group managed few collective and individual exhibitions. Their focus varies, but so far they significantly shaped as a platform connecting visual arts and music.
Cover photo: FITNESS WAR, Pince Gallery, Budapest, Facebook/PINCE