Community living is one of the ways to fight environmental anxiety, whilst also creating immediate alternatives to a political representation that remains entirely idle in respect to solutions to the climate crisis. The community at the Periférne centrá (Periphery Centres) in Dúbravica and the ecology-agriculture group in the village of Zaježová – both in Slovakia – offer such alternatives. Both initiatives recede from the progressive manifestations of contemporary art, but they can still inspire an overly individualized art scene.
Periférne centrá started in 2009 with the aim of bringing contemporary art to environments outside its main centres. They created a so-called Kunstdorf – a variation on the kunsthalle, but broadened to include the entire village and its surroundings – which includes the placement of small constructions (a sauna and a lookout tower). Every year, there is a new large mural on the local shop. Additionally, members of the initiative prepare workshops (of architecture, folk art, or design) and community events connect care for rural and urban spaces and contemporary artistic production. Artist Oto Hudec, for instance, created a kind of utopian object for the purposes of the community (DBSP 01, 2014), which is a beehive and a library at the same time.
Compared to Dúbravica, Zaježová is more focused on education in folk crafts, architecture, and environmental protection. What links it to the art world is that the core of the community – which numbers around a hundred people – is predominantly made up of workers in culture and the creative industries. They decided to leave their design offices and move to the countryside, where they are trying to develop a sustainable and ecological lifestyle.
Neither of these communities produces any intellectual discourse, which could serve as a direct criticism of the Capitalocene. Despite perhaps serving as an example of a relatively ineffective escapist strategy, their activities intuitively create meaningful ways of surviving in a society which functions on the extreme reaches of dualist divisions of culture and nature.
Down to the Mines
Community lifestyles can be understood as reactions to the present environmental crisis, a reaction marked by a certain horizontal view. What would such a view look like facing down, into the entrails of the Earth, underground, where infrastructure escapes the human gaze? Artist like Pavel Sterec and Aleš Čermák provide one answer. Artist and theoretician Boris Ondreička also considers these issues in his theoretical texts.
Aleš Čermák works with the underground as a metaphor for a labyrinthine hideout from the official power structures, but also as a virtual space of illegal repositories, open libraries, and dark webs. We cannot quite call Čermák an environmental artist, but we can trace an attempt – in his videos and installations – to capture the complex and global web or relationships that illustrate the encounters of social movements with technological development and the biopolitics of today.
“The entire planet is a process of planetary urbanisation”, we hear in Čermák’s video Druhá polovina světa (The Other Half of the World, 2016). Every component of our reality is connected to every other component; the labour of coal miners with the production of electricity which new technologies depend on in order to create a world without work, which is evidently available only to a narrow group of people, and in combination with capitalism fails to ensure a just division of resources (the child labourers in coltan mines in Congo will probably never buy a smartphone for their meagre wages). The entire system therefore necessarily leads to a crisis, which paradoxically also produces new and unrestrained forms of social organisation (activist ecological and anti-capitalist movements).
Catastrophe and crisis are also the subject of Země se chvěje (The Earth is Trembling, 2015), a video which Čermák made with Michal Cáb. This abstract video-essay is an image of the collapse of ecosystems which, however, are not part of some future apocalypse, but are becoming a part of our everyday experience.
The state of permanent doom was also a central motif in three exhibitions and one publication by the curator and theoretician Jan Zálešák. One of the exhibitions – Apocalypse me (2016) in Ústí nad Labem – also presented Země se chvěje or Pavel Sterec’s installation Fosilní my (Fossil Us), which featured exploratory geological drills complemented by layers of possible future relics of our anthropocenic era (e.g. artificial microfibers). The audio-guide which accompanied the installation, together with the drills themselves, allowed the visitors to consider geological time in its totality – they are composed not only of the past and the present; they also sketch out possible trajectories of the future.
Zálešák’s exhibitions expounded on contemporary apocalyptic visions in philosophy and critically assessed the roots of today’s crisis. Within them, art became not simply a bearer of bad news, but rather depicted various models of behaviour which it is necessary to develop in relation to the given situation. Ideally, we should work towards the creation of such social ties that are not bound to the logic of economic growth, but are instead based on values such as solidarity and love.
A social and political appeal is perhaps most present in the works of the Slovak artist Oto Hudec. Bees and their importance for the entire ecosystem is a topic that already appears in his object for Dúbravica. He picks it up again in a collaborative project with artist Daniela Krejčová for the Slovak branch of Greenpeace (2015). A small hive in the shape of a communist tower lock reminded one of the necessity of cohabitation between bees and people and of the heritage of socialist architecture and its organisation of life.
Bees are a recurring motif in the works of many artists; see, for example, the Urban Beeing exhibition at Školská 28 (2014). In the south of Slovakia, the Včelí kRaj project works on bee-care and invites contemporary artists for certain realisations (e.g. Juraj Gábor). On the Czech art scene, we might mention a performance by artist Adéla Součková and documentary film-maker Kristýna Bartošová (who is currently in production with a film on bees and their decline) called Nekontrolovatelné úniky včel (Uncontrollable Leaks of Bees, 2016), in which the authors included symbolic images reminding us of the loss of the relationship between humans and their environment and history.
Hudec only developed an interest in environmental topics during residencies abroad because, as he puts it, no one was working with them in 2005 Slovakia. At residencies in the USA, South Korea, or Portugal, he began working through the impact of pollution or water shortages, the mass production of food, devastation of land, and, primarily, the living conditions and identity of climate refugees. This last topic has become the central motif of Hudec’s current work.
He mostly focuses on the relationship of eastern European society to migration, but also on the oppression of minorities in general – due to a massive wave of xenophobia, the identity of “the other” is currently accented to such an extent that it is gradually becoming the norm in mainstream image circulation. Hudec’s pieces – often made in collaboration with individuals who are personally or directly affected by the topic – operate on the very border of art and activism, such as when the work consists of outputs from workshops with people from socially marginalised communities. The installations are then mostly composed of models of dwellings (Radio Bunker, 2017) or entire situations (Long Long Road, 2012) transplanted into gallery environments.
What is Still Living and What is Not?
A certain counterpart to the social and activist approaches in environmental art is provided by small-scale poetic interventions and installations by some Slovak artists. These works feature relationships to non-human spheres of life, thus creating hybrid forms which disturb the dualist division of the world into the living and the non-living.
These motifs appear in texts by Boris Ondreička, but also in performances and photographs by Simona Gottierová, or installations by Dávid Koronczi. Gottierová often chooses materials such as liquids, flour, or rocks, which are either placed in symbolic relationships within the installation or exposed to the energy of human intervention: children play with the flour, a rock lying on the performer’s stomach rises and falls with his breathing, body parts are engulfed by water or dough.
The artist’s gestures are minuscule, distant from the politically engaged approach, but in their sensibility, they are close to certain works from the ‘60s and ‘70s, with artists organising events in the landscape together, searching for a renewed relationship to the environment through social micro-situations (carrying water in one’s hands, embracing the trunk of a tree). Examples might include works featured in Milan Knížák’s anthology through space and time in the second half of the 1970’s (Nucené symbiózy; Forced Symbioses, 1977), of which he said: “The magic of rocks has allured me for a long time. I don’t mean rock as a material to be processed […], but rock as rock: rock – individual, rock – being, rock – person / existing in its final / in fact slowly developing / form, and, in this form, respected. It can be found, seen, realised, thought, and so on”.
Flour, bread, and the closely related yeast cells and bacteria are the protagonists of Dávid Koronczi’s latest installation (Bacterial blues and partying yeasts, together with Martina Szabóová and Juraj Mydla, 2018). In his latest projects and videos, the artist has mostly worked with the subject of national identity and the idea of the historically shared region on the borders of Slovakia and Hungary. The installation is composed of loaves and buns of bread that are being devoured by mould, flour, and dough. In this way, he reminds the viewer about the role of food, which has presently become the central topic of Koronczi’s interest, and also of the composition of the human body, which is made up to a large degree of bacteria – there are even more or them inside us and on us than there are cells in our body. This parasitological and bacterial view of the human changes the stereotypical image of some physical integrity or outer and inner entities we are composed of. The living and non-living are in fact highly fluid categories which can be considered transformative in relation to the prevailing political ideologies or a diverse range of spiritualities.
And What About Politics?
According to Oto Hudec, there are far too few artists in Slovakia (and the same is true of the Czech Republic) whose work could be classified as “environmental art”. In his opinion, this is hindered by the all too narrow connection to politics. Environmental protection is a topic that hits close to home for many people, but it is too “activist” and propagandist for their own work. This, however, is the interesting moment in relation to environmental art, which cannot simply be waved away as one of the currents in the canon of art history, which we have become accustomed to naming in simplistic terms. With a knowledge of the works on which this text relies, we could rather say that these are artistic strategies that share a similar political position or philosophy, one critical of the current economic system, which is also radical, at least in the sense of searching for the roots of the present ecological crisis.
Furthermore – as the examples above show – connections between ecology and art offer a way to step out of the art scene bubble, connect with other spheres of life, and thus speak to the general public. Perhaps it is time to begin operating positively with the term propaganda, to consider it as one of the means of emancipation from the thinking which results in a devastated environment.
Nevertheless, we can say that the number of artists working with pollution or humanity’s profit-seeking approach to its surroundings is increasing. Sometimes it takes the form of a transformation of behaviour within a given system – as with the work of the young artist Dorota Brázdovičová, who created mechanisms for the recycling of material across departments at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava – or the discovery of a poetic sensitivity towards non-living material or direct participation in the ecology activist movement (several artists and curators took part in this year’s Climate Camp in the Czech Republic, including the coal mine occupation). We can also consider the adverse developments on our planet in light of these growing activities, which also allow for the creation of new forms of social organisation and contemporary art, growing to a truly social profile.
 Quoted from Ondřej Navrátil, České umění ve věku environmentalismu 1960-2000 [Czech Art in the Age of Environmentalism], Brno: Masaryk University, 2017, p. 101.
Translation from Czech: Ian Mikyska
Cover image: Iceland expedition 2015. Photo: Julia Martin, 2015 / frontiers-of-solitude.org
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.