Whenever I’m sitting around with friends discussing contemporary society, we seldom manage to avoid climate change and a sharing of our frustrations and anxieties, which stem not only from the political representation’s lack of activity, but also the ineffective strategies for struggle offered by liberal discourse. We get angry, we criticise, but we also name possible flashes of hope, which consist of a need for a renewal of community and togetherness, and the slowly expanding activist movement around the world. I often ask myself – in a situation like this one, how do we think about art? How do we create comprehensible images which will capture the insane complexity of relationships which conditions today’s world, and which inevitably lead us into the burning spiral of ecological catastrophe? And what are the formal aspects of the instances of Czech and Slovak art searching for the roots and consequences of the contemporary situation?
These were the questions I began asking myself when I began searching for examples of environmental art in the Czech and Slovak context. One surprise was that only a few artists work with these topics continually and in the long term – for many of them, it is only one of the many areas present in their work.
When curator Lenka Kukurová was searching for artists to participate in the Art for the Climate (Umění pro klima) project at this year’s Climate Camp (a meeting of environmental activists which usually involves direct action in coal mines), it was not an easy task. Who’s working on climate? Whose work addresses the influence of the current political system on the environment, or the relationship between living and non-living nature? What works relate to air and water pollution, coal mining, deforestation, or the decline of the insect population?
Searching for these artists is difficult because you have to search for individual works. That’s one difficulty. And the second: this topic did not present many connections between the Czech and Slovak scenes. As such, these scenes are – in art as in ecological activism – two separate narratives determined by the terrain of each state.
There are very few collaborations between the two scenes, but they are still worth discussing in a focused text. Rather than homogenizing them, we must search for connections, overlaps, or similar approaches, which, however, are still uniquely defined by their own political and geographic placement.
Frontiers of Solitude
The first names to be mentioned – as far as the Czech art scene is concerned – are Michal Kindernay and Miloš Vojtěchovský, who, together with Dagmar Šubrtová, are responsible for the long-term project Frontiers of Solitude. This team of people – originally linked to the legendary Školská 28 Communication Space in the centre of Prague – initiated research into three places in the landscape that were drastically transformed by human activity. This triangulation of points – the Most Coal Basin in the north of the Czech Republic, iron ore mines in the north of Norway, and a hydroelectric power plant in Island – creates a global image of the extractivist logic of capitalism. As Jan Zálešák put it in his editorial for the first edition of Artalk Revue, these are “sacrificed zones” – places which lie outside our imagination, far away from cities, left to the insatiable diggers of multinational corporations.
These places and processes are now understood as self-evident components of economic and technological processes. Making them more visible was one of the aims of Frontiers of Solitude, which included the participation of artist expedition teams from all three countries.
Of the Czech participants, we might mention Michal Kindernay, Vladimír Turner, or Martin Zet, who work consistently on our relationships to nature and the position of the human individual in the landscape.
Michal Kindernay works mostly with video installations and electronic measuring devices that create images on the basis of algorithmic transformations of input from physical quantities and phenomena. These can be natural forces (such as the wind in Wind*Cam, 2010, the movement of water in a river in Envi*Tuner, 2011, or the procession of clouds in Heliophilia, 2014) or other light, heat, moisture, sound, and wind conditions in the environment into which the machine is placed (Camera Altera, 2012). Kindernay created Cargo (2016) for one of the exhibitions within the framework of Frontiers of Solitude: it captured the wanderings of a moving camera between the huge fortifications of seemingly endless shipping containers.
A short video essay (Homeostasis, 2017) was also produced within the project by a collective of authors including Kindernay and Vojtěchovský. It uses aesthetic and educational elements. The creative team used a simple, observational camera angle to capture the landscape of the North Bohemian Coal Basin, which has spread through its environs like a hyperobject since the mid-20th century, when massive surface mining began in the area. Villages and entire cities were demolished and river systems strongly polluted.
Homeostasis does not show this landscape as dead and soulless, but more as a reverse, shadow non-nature, a scrum from which matter, steam, foam, mud, and sand arise. Matter constantly in motion, maintained by the streams of capital on the unregulated market with natural resources. Matter to which life returns through the activities of humankind.
Humankind returns to the environment with Vladimír Turner, an artist and documentary filmmaker who shot the short film Funeral (2016) at the same location, and whose footage is also used in Homeostasis. In this view of the “buried north Bohemian landscape”, Turner walks around the brown coal territory, carrying out some species of post-industrial performances illustrating the impossibility of human cohabitation with this surreal devastated landscape.
This also connects to Martin Zet’s video-performances – the artist stands in the middle of the coal mine and holds his eyes open by force. Gradually, they fill with dust, tearing up until it becomes unbearable. Zet’s works are often based on the interaction of his own body with its surroundings, to which he relates with gentle gestures: copying the curvature of hills with his body (Martiněves from the Saluto Romano series, 2005), caressing the surface of the sea (Ultimate blessing, 2009), or wandering around the edge of the Bílina coal mine like a romantic artist (the Art for the Climate series of photographs as part of the 2018 Climate Camp).
A crucial element in this collaboration is Miloš Vojtěchovský, a theorist and curator who is one of the few people in the Czech Republic with an in-depth and long-term interest in audiovisual work, experimental video and sound, and also contemporary manifestations of environmental art. The topic of this project arose from his earlier work on the relationship between art and technology. This comes through in sound field recordings, which become immediate “embrace of the landscape” (whether urban or natural); an environment in the broadest sense of the word.
In an interview with Lenka Dolanová – who continually explores environmental topics as a curator of exhibitions at the Regional Gallery of Vysočina in Jihlava – Vojtěchovský mentions something important when speaking of one of the symposia organized at the former monastery in Plasy; home of legendary residencies for Czech and international artists (1992–1999): “The ecological concept of this symposium (titled Fungus: Exploring a Place, which took place in 1995) was not my idea. It came from the Belgian artist Mimi Debruyn and from discussions with curators from Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany.”
So while there was a certain Czechoslovak lineage of environmental performances and events from the 1960’s onwards, which included care for the environment – and which curator and theoretician Ondřej Navrátil discusses in the recently published České umění ve věku environmentalismu 1960–2000 (Czech Art in the Age of Environmentalism 1960–2000) – this lineage was cut short in the ‘90s, and barely reappeared, if at all. Most often then, examples of environmental art were linked to current streams on the international art scene, which is also true today.
Communitarianism Against Environmental Grief
The Frontiers of Solitude project was not created in a complete vacuum – quite the contrary, it is a logical outcome of the long-term activities of the Školská 28 Communication Space (1999–2016), whose programme mostly focused on community projects and audiovisual installations working with urban or natural environments.
A lively community was thus created, linked to the activities of Michal Kindernay and Miloš Vojtěchovský, but also of the Center of Audiovisual Studies at FAMU, which always distinguished itself with a strongly conceptual and experimental approach to audiovisual material. This community of artists created a very specific and distinctive relationship between a local art scene and its environment and the artist’s movement within it, which is most precisely characterised by sound recordings (e.g. Vojtěchovský’s field recordings). Among other things, the programme at Školská 28 also focused on urban beekeeping, community gardening, or cooperative agriculture, mostly through lectures and exhibitions. Even though the individual exhibition projects were very varied, I remember Školská 28 as a community space for environmental topics with which art could expand beyond the limits of artistic institutions.
A group of artists and curators (Michal Kindernay, Magdalena Kobzová, Lenka Dolanová, and Gívan Belá) attempted to create a space for community living in a former cow barn (Kravín Rural Arts) in the village of Hranice in the centre of the Czech Republic. They created a residency centre focused on the development of “ecological” media art with both a local and an international impact.
In this case, however, the word ecological does not simply denote art that is considerate in regards to the environment: “We understand ecology not only in using natural materials or engaging the problems of environmental pollution. Ecology can be understood as a critical and interdisciplinary approach to the world around us and as an alternative method of creating communities. According to the French philosopher and psychologist Félix Guattari, it is necessary to see the world from the perspectives of three ecologies: social, psychological, and environmental (Three Ecologies, 1989)”, write the organisers of Kravín Rural Arts in their statement. Although the programming at Školská 28 changed drastically after the departure of the original curatorial team a year ago, Kravín Rural Arts is still in limited operation. Every year, curators around Školská 28 and Kravín publish RurArtMap, which maps artistic and ecological initiatives outside the main centres in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Part II. is coming soon!
Translation from Czech: Ian Mikyska
Cover image: Vladimír Turner, Funeral, 2016, videostill
The project is co-financed by the Governments of Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia through Visegrad Grants from International Visegrad Fund. The mission of the fund is to advance ideas for sustainable regional cooperation in Central Europe.