This short text was commissioned by the curators of Left Performance Histories, a pioneering and thought-provoking exhibition at NGBK, Berlin in spring 2018.
In paying attention to queer and radical actions in the gallery, on the stage and in the street in Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, Left Performance Histories not only puts a spotlight on overlooked and forgotten histories, it also suggests the extent to which communist authority in the region emphasised conservative and conventional social values. Sex, for instance, was understood in very prurient terms in the Soviet Union and even in the more liberal settings of, say, the Hungarian People’s Republic and Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, it was managed through licensed pornography and ‘glamour’ (though the tawdry strip joints which were found in many Eastern European cities in the 1980s hardly lived up to this claim). Homosexuality was almost invisible, too. Always at risk of stimulating unmanageable desires, Fashion was also a ‘problem’. It is unsurprising then that the authorities in the 1970s often encouraged a kind of ‘ersatz’ fashion – largely copied from the West – in order to vent the desire for fashionability.
Historians and political commentators have often supplied accounts of culture and life in the Eastern Bloc and Yugoslavia which are in themselves highly conventionalising. Often, state artists have been lined up against dissidents in a tidy arrangement which produces the impression of two distinct zones – official and unofficial culture. The former is associated with illusion, deception and propaganda, and the other with transparency and a commitment to what Vaclav Havel called ‘living in truth’. So how can we explain the remarkable set of practices gathered under the title of Left Performance Histories? After all they were hardly predicated on ‘truth’. Often spectacular and sometimes conducted in public, events like Mode von Frauen für Frauen in Erfurt in 1988 or El Kazovszkij’s androgynous ‘Dzsan’ brought excess and fantasy to societies which are often understood in terms of shortage and control. Neither hymns to authority or the expression of the earnest politics of dissent, underground catwalk shows, wilfully absurd performances and bold declarations of sexuality were self-consciously ‘other’.
Many works included in Left Performance Histories might be understood as ‘queer’. This, of course, means an eschewal of heteronormativity, but is also the practice of subverting the straight lines of convention. Recalling her activities as a video artist (with Aina Šmid), activist and writer in Yugoslavia, Marina Grzinič writes: “queer positions – every form of non-heterosexual positioning we understood, exclusively and entirely, as a political stance. This queerness – and the word queer means literally ‘not right/not quite’ – demands, of us and of the viewer, a rethinking of the conditions of life, work, and possibilities of resistance.”
The symbols and ideological claims of socialism were ‘made strange’, sometimes by simply being declared. In the early 1970s Bálint Szombathy, for instance, produced a remarkable note of ideological disturbance by the simple gesture of carrying a placard with the portrait of a portrait of Lenin through the streets and workplaces of Budapest. Others took a more wilful an even perverse approach – Tamás Király, a Hungarian fashion designer, created a self-consciously ridiculous ‘red star dress’ to mark the 70th anniversary of the October Revolution. Elsewhere, Vladimir Mamyshev-Monroe and close colleagues Yuris Lesnik and Timur Novikov in the Soviet Union, created ‘Pirate TV’ in 1988 – an underground television programme distributed on VHS cassettes. Mamyshev-Monroe presented improvised and uncensored ‘series’ that had the liveliness and busy energy of MTV, the global cable and satellite channel, if not its production values. One was entitled ‘Culture News’ and another, ‘The Deaths of Famous People’. Dressed extravagantly for the screen, Mamyshev Monroe set about queering the icons of history, politics and popular culture. Mamyshev Monroe assumed a hybrid persona combining Adolf Hitler and Marilyn Monroe, dissolving ‘both of them in myself, this appearing as the model of the new man’. At the end of the Soviet Union, a figure who once been announced as the harbinger of a world to come was, it seemed, invoked to announce the utopia of queer futurism. But irony allows one thing to be said, but another meant. And ambiguity can – in some circumstances – be productive – should we take Szombathy and Mamyshev-Monroe’s performance of these left histories as dissimulation or sincere call to revolution?