“What kind of political and economic order can we imagine that is neither state-run nor utopian, neither repressive nor libertarian, neither economically impoverished nor culturally grey?” asks American political theorist Wendy Brown in her essay Resisting Left Melancholy. During my short stay in the Czech Republic, I met artists, cultural theorists and organisers who are navigating a similar zone of “neither-nor”: They leave the centre, but rather than finding the periphery, they find new centres. They cease to create art for institutions but experiment with their own artistic infrastructure. Instead of creating politically or socially engaged artworks they engage in direct actions or consistently and stubbornly perform non-artistic activities as art. Because my residency lasted only ten days, what I did there was not complex, representative research, but rather an attempt to process information arising from partially random, intensive meetings.
My primary research interest was heavily influenced by tons of texts about Acedia and Melancholia,
which I had been reading for a completely different project. In such a state of mind, it is not difficult to conjure up a motive for withdrawing from the centre/scene/Prague/artistic creation or whatever we call this “place”, as a romantic gesture of defiance against something I myself perceive as problematic, unsustainable and unbearable. “What do we have to hate that we might preserve the idealisation (…)?” asks Wendy Brown elsewhere in the same essay. My movements across the Czech Republic, from Česká Bříza through Prague to Krásná Lípa, were perhaps primarily a search for shared refusal, as a common starting point and an endeavour to narrow in on the reasons for disgust or withdrawal.
These are the ‘obligations of governors inviting us or guests turning up’. We must stand our ground, and not be put upon and then run the risk of ‘pleurisy or brain fever’ because we are afraid of getting ‘a reputation for boorishness’ if we don’t go (123b–124b). In several of his essays Plutarch addresses the problem of what he calls being ‘discountenanced’ or being forced to say ‘yes’ when one wants to refuse and should refuse. This is what he calls here and elsewhere dusōpía. (Simon Swain, “Social Stress and Political Pressure. On Melancholy in Context.” In On Melancholy. Rufus of Ephesus, 2008.)
Plutarch’s term of dusōpía, dating back 2000 years, is extremely useful for considering the problematic aspects of contemporary art production. It makes us remember all the moments of inner tension we feel while visiting vernissages just for the sake of showing up, when we are reluctant to say no for fear of hampering possible future collaborations, when we feel obliged to be part of a scene that is hard to seize but real to experience, and to take part actively in its rituals and its scandals. Both Plutarch and the ancient Greek physician Rufus of Ephesus regarded staying at the governor’s court and the intense intellectual activity this involved as high risk factors leading to Melancholia and withdrawal. This was caused by the constant stress of performing in front of the governor, but also by the late dinners and unhealthy lifestyle, resulting in an imbalance of bodily fluids. The art-world parallel seems to match so far, and perhaps the only aspect not mentioned is the FOMO. The condition of exile, in Plutarch’s terms, is not a punishment but a form of redemption. Redemption from what, however? And what does this imply for contemporary art practices?
Remain ruthlessly free
“When the revolution came, we experienced great joy, but the feeling passed very quickly.” Gallery sam83 is situated in the extension of a family house and is part of a broader concept titled Vision for a New Culture and its Place, which Sráč Sam (F**cker Sam) has been putting into practice since 1989 by persistently removing “artificial cultural frameworks”. Sráč Sam spent the period between childhood and adolescence in a shirt-sewing factory, where she was placed at the age of 13. She started creating her first artworks here, in a strict regime of boarding school and everyday drudgery, among a group of girls separated from their families. The reason for her post-revolution disgust was that the grant system almost immediately became a variation on the corruption, favouritism and nepotism of the previous regime, while at the same time it imposed extreme limits on artistic creativity. Anyone who wanted to remain “ruthlessly free” had to go elsewhere. Not necessarily outside the centre, because the definition of where the centre ends and the periphery begins, and what is and is not art, always depends on some external authority, which Sráč Sam does not want to replicate. “Outside” means a place where we can afford to work without what is in our view beyond the line, for example, without grants. It also therefore designates a place of more affordable rents, real estate prices where the inevitable debt ratio is shortened and reduced, and sustainability returns on the horizon, where it can somehow still be seen.
The same movement and the same gravitational drive is manifest in the case of the Nová Perla National Gallery. This art space, run by artist, critic and cultural organiser Ivan Mečl, has had to move several times: from the functionalist building of the former electrical company in Prague’s Holešovice neighbourhood to an abandoned paper mill in Vrané nad Vltavou near Prague, and most recently to a former textile factory in Krásná Lípa. The chances of defeating gentrification in the city are low, and whether because of this fact or in spite of it, Ivan Mečl – like Sráč Sam – resists being dependent on the grant system. As he says, “I am convinced that grants for small and medium-sized enterprises are deliberately designed to prevent you from accessing them. It is a completely different language that you cannot and do not want to understand. Because the moment you do, you’re lost. There’s no way back.” Even the risk of financial debt is more tolerable than this, and it is more acceptable to shift geographically than cognitively.
I have accumulated some symbolic capital and I’m not afraid to use it
Another exile strategy would be to vacillate deliberately between art and non-art, scene and beyond. “I invented the label of post-practice art because it allows me to be both outside and inside the art scene simultaneously, which is a relatively comfortable and amusing position. And they fell for it”. Radim Labuda co-organises events and activities in the Punctum – Krásovka venue, situated in the backyard of a residential building in Žižkov. “I can be outside when I like, but at the same time, over the years of artistic practice, through awards, exhibitions and so on, I have accumulated some social capital, and I’m not afraid to use it.” For Radim, post-practice means not a withdrawal, but a transition to a different type of practice; from his own artistic creation to creating space for others. A similar strategy is employed by the artist Vojtěch Frölich, when he poses questions of art and occupies the spaces produced by it. An example would be his acrobatic/climbing interventions in art institutions, when he uses elements of the architecture and fittings as grips, or when he climbs through spaces that are outside the view of spectators – such as private flats above the gallery space. “The funny thing is that everybody asks me all the time about climbing and if I’m not afraid, but this is a much bigger, incomparably greater adrenaline rush and permanent uncertainty.” Since 2012 Vojtěch has run a club at the Academy of Fine Arts (AVU), which started as his school exam project. He runs it as an art project. In contrast to Rikrit Tiravanija, the star of Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics, Frölich did not quit after a few months but continued the project for another seven years, until the present day. He moved from art as a gesture that risks nothing, but only proclaims , into the sphere of maintenance, operating, estimates, calculations, and financial and other risks. If the project is to be consistent, could he behave any other way? Running a club is a stubborn and persistent reflection on the meaning of art institutions at a time when white cubes are moving to the internet; when what counts is what can be found in the search engine’s memory, and exhibitions are organised not mainly for the audience to participate in, but so as to add them to one’s portfolio.
Expanding the notion of art (AVU club) and leaving art and returning to it when needed (Punctum) can both be seen as methods of art hacking, creating temporary autonomous zones. But their temporary nature is somehow ironically echoed by the presence of heavy machinery behind the window, levelling the terrain for the upcoming investment project.
I do not pour oil on the sh*t
To return to Wendy Brown’s initial question: what kind of political, economic, but also aesthetic arrangements do these venues represent? They all refuse both state subvention and private support, yet there are nuances in their operational philosophy that are worth inspecting in greater detail. The AVU club is a way of making use of the place’s potential, which goes beyond the white cube. It is a pretext for the Academy’s students and teachers to meet with the public, with people who do not visit exhibitions, but who are hungry. The club is proof that the language of art, its criteria, delimitations and definitions, can be easily applied to managing a venue – but that alone is not enough. The customers are collective collectors, but they also form a social statue in the tradition of Joseph Beuys, like all the regulars of a venue of any price level. From the financial point of view, the cleanest way for Vojtěch to earn his living is outside the grant programmes, without the support of private sponsors and without the necessity to sell artworks. “When I don’t have money, I earn it for instance by working at height. But I do not pour oil on the shit.”
The Punctum programme focuses primarily on experimental music and sound projects, but also features screenings, discussions, yoga classes, and even community and activist meetings. Punctum exemplifies a model for a venue that is operated as a non-profit activity and whose organisers must rely on sources of income from other activities. Radim identified this principle as one of the main reasons why there is less competition in experimental music clubs than in galleries, and more sincerity, sharing and ease. But does working for free represent resistance to neoliberalism, or is it its dream? “We sometimes make self-ironic jokes that in Punctum we have miniature anarcho-capitalism, where culture has to earn its living. But this is just one of the possible perspectives from which to see the network of relationships that link us. All this ecosystem serves is its own sustenance. It does not extract value for the sake of accumulation, but only for its own autopoiesis. The moment you leave out the love and music fandom, it all falls apart and makes no sense. I have never experienced similar fandom in the visual arts.”
The main donors in this microutopia are the organisers, who put their time and energy, and money saved from other activities, into the common project. This is similar to a potlatch ritual, in which a kinship’s wealth – luxury carpets, weapons, jewellery etc. – was ceremonially and spectacularly destroyed in full view of the community, resulting in a delirious performance. Can the sharing of an excessive experience (music, potlatch) serve as a way of preventing material accumulation and social inequalities? Having conquered Holešovice and Karlín, gentrification is moving into Žižkov, and the future of Punctum – and its neighbours – is under threat. Potlatch rituals were based on delayed reciprocity. The next kinship performing it would have to equal or surpass the value of the wealth that was destroyed previously. Confronting the enormous waste of gentrification, then, would require forming alliances behind the door of Punctum.
Models against hopelessness
One of the Vision projects by Sráč Sam was the construction of a low-cost house, which currently functions as a residential centre and studio. The house was built in 5 months and is intended to serve as a model for affordable housing. In terms of technical construction, it was designed so that almost anyone who wanted to could participate physically in building it, not only strong, healthy men. In Vision, more than elsewhere, there is greater emphasis (or maybe just more explicit emphasis?) on individuals and their duty to help others who are in a worse situation or disadvantaged in some way. The aim is to manage alone or with others, without relying on the state or any other externality as the guarantor of justice and social security. Removing such externalities is probably the first step towards removing “artificial cultural frameworks”, or at least I guess so. But how can we ensure that this mutual caring is a systemic element and not a manifestation of individual goodwill? That is, how do we ensure that we are not substituting dependence on the state with dependence on charity? How to deal with those who reproduce the inequalities and extract benefits from them? “Oligarchs are a mutation, a special product of society,” says Sráč Sam. The belief that this is not an exemplary or even a regular product of society, but an aberration, is perhaps the most apt expression of the utopian dimension of Vision. “Everything we do is meant to prove it is possible. A model against hopelessness.” It is impossible to come to this gallery anonymously, see the exhibition and leave, for everything that happens there permeates the house, the interior, the private sphere. Is anonymity the second artificial cultural framework that should be removed? In some places, I would prefer to keep it, at least in part. As I leave this place, the thought occurs to me that I should have brought a gift, the kind of thing one brings to a visit.
Tourists and natural selection
The Nová Perla venue is situated in a town in northern Bohemia, in the Šluknov Hook region, at the entrance to the Bohemian Switzerland National Park. Here, the expanding “tourist taxidermy” mixes with the reputation of a socially excluded region and the lingering trauma of the expulsion of the German population after the Second World War. As far as I could tell, these elements do not interfere with each other. The Nová Perla compound extends over almost 6,000 square metres. The bookstore and the café are already in operation, and eventually there will be a graphic workshop, art and craft studios, and residential and exhibition areas. Building the cultural infrastructure here also means attending city council meetings, where jovial racist comments are not uncommon, cooking vegan goulash for the party of a local cyclo-activist, and fighting to keep the wetland meadow from being turned into a parking lot. “The number of tourists has doubled in the past year. For the winter, there’s only two of us who stay.” The National Gallery in Nová Perla is an attempt to build a space that contrasts with the expanding infrastructure of fast-food tourism all around, where visitors park, consume a piece of land and go. Tourism can turn distance into a commodity, but the enchantment that it conveys comes from one’s gaze touching the landscape, briefly and superficially, ideally from the perspective of a vantage point. Nová Perla is intended to create a space for experimentation that is interested in the location without ignoring its problematic aspects, that does not reduce the land to a postcard vista. It is an infrastructure that prefers to pack and move on, rather than abandon or reduce its vision.
What is also paradoxical about the seasonal besieging of Nová Perla by tourists is the fact that tourism was one of the drivers behind the cultural initiative to move ever further away from the centre. Within these very concrete, practical delimitations, the centre-periphery dichotomy is real by virtue of the way it sets limits for each of us. But then, is this movement not a perfect realisation of neoliberal-Darwinian “natural” selection? After all, is gentrification not the most effective instrument of decentralisation? Should we offer grants to developers, tourist agencies and real estate speculators? Before we fall into Left Melancholia again, there is one more detail. As soon as factories, railway stations and granaries cease to be productive, art moves in and occupies them. This is a significative moment. Instead of melancholically clinging to the lost paradise of art as a factory for social change, we can test the diverse ways of collective unproductivity and perhaps also accelerated burnout. “Enlightenment always comes too late”, states the Nová Perla website. Let’s wait!
This article was written and published in the frame of East Art Mags programme with the support of the International Visegrad Fund.