The Future is Between Your Legs: Sex, Art and Censorship in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia

Eastern Europe, Sexuality

This is a draft version of a text which will be published by Nottingham Contemporary in 2016.



Katalin Ladik, Zagreb 1970

Katalin Ladik, Zagreb 1970

In spring 1970 a small audience gathered in a church in the Old Town in Zagreb to watch a performance by the poet, actor and artist, Katalin Ladik. Dressed in nothing but a loose fur, Ladik performed a piece which she called ‘Vabljene’ with a traditional Hungarian bagpipe, a small skin-covered drum and a traditional bow. No recording of this event exists, but in the same year she was invited into the television studios in Novi Sad, her home city, to perform for the cameras. Reciting her poems in her native Hungarian – a language which few outside the multi-ethnic Vojvodina region understood – she stretches and extends her voice in the footage, sweeping across what seems to be unnatural sonic spectrum from high-frequency trilling to low rumbling tones. Interviewed by an Italian journalist, she said ’I do not do anything strange: peforming naked I expose the nakedness of my soul, and my inner reality … The public does not have to accept me for what I say but they must accept me for who I am, as I am, with my hips, with my breasts exposed. … I am naked and they too are stripped of their preconceptions. When we reach this understanding, this is the moment in which the audience and I achieve the necessary means to perform together the great ritual.’[1] She was, it seemed, engaged in the discovery of a sensual language – perhaps originating in prehistory – for new rituals which would escape the social conventions which managed desire, not least in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) in the 1960s.

Ladik was invited to perform in Zagreb by the organisers of GEFF 69, an experimental film festival which for this, its fourth meeting, took ‘Sexuality as the Way to a New Humanism’ (Seksualnost kao mogućnost za novi humanizam) as its theme. The slogan captured a new mood in the country, or at least a new boldness on the part of the Yugoslav counter-culture which had been stirred into life by student protests in 1968, the arrival of rock music and psychedelics, as well as a cocktail of esoteric philosophy and new left politics. For four days in April 1970 (a few months after the original planned date), films, performances and talks reflecting on various kinds of sexuality drew large audiences to Zagreb’s cinemas, theatres and even the old town church. One reporter wrote, ‘Sex – an evangelical word – was an overwhelming call for the audience to join a orgiastic visual adventure (without danger). Although the films only partially fulfilled expectations, the screenings and associated events took place in crowded halls.’[2] Screenings included Carolee Schneemann’s ‘Fuses’ (1965) – a overpainted diary-film which sought to capture what ‘one feels during lovemaking’ – and two homoerotic Warhol movies (‘Flesh’ and ‘Lonesome Cowboys’, both 1968).

Mila Budisavljević, ‘Neobavezni pogled na svijet 4', 1969

Mila Budisavljević, ‘Neobavezni pogled na svijet 4′, 1969

A prize-winning film in the festival competition, Mila Budisavljević’s ‘Neobavezni pogled na svijet 4’ (Optional View of the World, 4’, 1969) presented a close-up view of a woman’s lips and tongue, seemingly pressing against the lens of the camera, making the smooth, seductive mouth which appeared in so much advertising and cinema seem fleshy and real.

Celebrating uninhibited sexuality and other pleasures, the organisers of GEFF 69 were at pains to stress high-minded aspirations, perhaps to head off accusations of exploitation: ‘The sexual plan is just as important as the social and political ones … GEFF sets out to explore what this kind of movie can be when it is an experiment outside the bourgeois frameworks of pornography and kitsch: … We want to know whether in this field it is possible to something more than merely reflect things (so often, it comes down to the picturing the sexual act), we are interested in whether the filmmaker can escape this passive position.’[3] In this way, sexual liberation – then being trumpeted with loud horns in the West – could be harnessed to have real effects in Yugoslavia. Revolution, so often presented in terms of deferral in Eastern Europe (the utopia over the horizon), was within grasp of the individual: all he or she had to do was to revolutionise his or her thought and lifestyle. After all, a new humanism – predicated on a conception of a community of creative , equal and self-managing individuals – had been promised by the regime but remained little more than an imprecise slogan. GEFF 69 promised to put flesh on Tito’s bones.

The festival was organised as a critique of conservative attitudes, whether those held by society or by the authorities. Sexuality constituted a new front in which humanity could be liberated from various forms of repression, not least the ties of marriage, the laced-up conventions of dress and the fetishism of commodity culture. GEFF 69 juror, Dušan Makavejev, made this the subject of his remarkable film, ‘WR: Mysterija organizma’ (WR: Mysteries of the Organism, 1971). Ostensibly a documentary on the life and work of psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich and in particular, his ‘discovery’ of ‘Cosmic Orgone Energy’, Makavejev’s often-funny movie is a meditation on sexuality and violence – the latter seeming to erupt when the former is repressed. A collage film, it offers a catalogue of scenes from the sexual revolution in the USA, as well as the story of allegorical love affair between Vladimir Ilich, a celebrity ice-dancer who represents the Soviet Union around the world, and Milena, a Yugoslav partisan and sexual revolutionary. Critical of socialism’s repression of sex as well capitalism’s commodification of it, Makavejev’s film achieved international notoriety and plaudits for the candid treatment of the subject, but it was not the only expression of what one champion of GEFF 69 called ‘our revolution’.

Lazar Stojanović’, ‘Plastični Isus’, 1971

Lazar Stojanović’, ‘Plastični Isus’, 1971

Lazar Stojanović’s ‘Plastični Isus’ (Plastic Jesus) (a graduation project made the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade in 1971) shared not only Makavejev’s collage technique but also his interest in sexual and political taboos.[4] And at the same time, the OHO collective of artists, poets and writers made sexuality one their principle themes of their activities in performance and proto-conceptual art before fully embracing the hippy fantasy of disappearing into nature when in 1971 they formed the Šempas Commune. In fact, the group’s retreat from modernity was prefigured in Naško Križnar’s Beli Ljudje’ (White People) film made in 1969-70 with the full resources of the Neoplanta Film Studio in Novi Sad.[5] [3] With two distinct halves, the first part of the film shows a group of twelve men and women – OHO and their friends – playing various kind of sensual games in a white space. They eat and kiss, roll naked in what look like white feathers and reproduce the movements of the mice and sheep that share their closed space.

Still from Naško Križnar’s ‘Beli Ljudje’, 1970

Still from Naško Križnar’s ‘Beli Ljudje’, 1969-70

The men and women are sometimes undressed and the scenes occasionally turns orgiastic, though never sexually explicit. In the second half, the community moves into natural landscapes and the scale of their gestures expands: they leave trails of white powder on the coastline and fill the air with coloured smoke.[6] In 1970 writer Bora Ćosić identified in OHO’s works, the deployment of ‘sexuality as a transgressive, critical and subversive instrument of confrontation with the opportunism and hypocracies of the real-socialist society.’[7] Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 12.58.23Such confrontations were in fact rare: in 1970 OHO’s Andraž Šalamun, for instance, published a series of photographs of a couple in positions from the Kama sutra in Problemi which caused a ripple of protests from its readers.[8]

The programme of sexual liberation was not just a marginal interest of the counter-culture in Yugoslavia after 1968. The appearance of pornographic magazines on newsstands at the time was also explained in terms of Yugoslav exceptionalism, the claim that socialism was not organised according to either the Soviet model or by the dictates of capitalism in the SFRY.

Chic magazine cover, 1969

Chic magazine cover, 1969

Interviewed in 1972, Ljubisa Kozomara, editor of Čik magazine – one of a new wave of pin-up mags which appeared at the end of the 1960s, said ‘Sex magazines are just another way in which Yugoslavia is socially and economically more free than other Communist countries’.[9] Yugoslavia’s embrace of ‘market socialism’ offered tangible incentives to publishers to find mass audiences. Čik, like other prominent titles Start and Adam i Eva, featured centrefolds alongside political and social reports, as well as interviews with public figures. These colourful magazines treated sexual pleasure with a degree of seriousness: the editor of Adam i Eva said ‘I believe I’m doing some very human work. We publish letters from homosexuals, who are still arrested and jailed in this country. We give advice to village girls too ashamed to take their problems to a doctor.’[10] Likewise, in its early years, Start featured informative articles on birth control and artificial insemination, as well as a running a full length illustrated feature on childbirth.[11] The paradoxes of a magazine which promised public enlightenment whilst trading a limiting vision of femininity (the pin-up) are clear: nevertheless, Kozomara and his colleagues were sincere in their belief that they were breaking repressive taboos.[12] Adapting the clichés of Titoism to its cause, Start editorialized: ‘The epoch of the rule of the youth is coming – sexual liberation cannot be separated from the other individual and social problems, but it can contribute to solving many of them.’[13]

Whilst such magazines thrived in the 1970s, official approaches to images of sexuality were inconsistent and often censorious. Adam i Eva’s editor was taken to court on the grounds of obscenity in 1971 but acquitted. Moreover, censorship was applied differently in different republics and shifts in power between conservative and liberal factions in power meant that was tolerated at one moment might become pro­hibited the next. Nevertheless, sexuality was invoked throughout the history of the SFRY as grounds for censorship.

Still from Makavejev’s early short film, ‘Spomenicima ne treba verovati’, 1958

Still from Makavejev’s early short film, ‘Spomenicima ne treba verovati’, 1958

Makavejev’s early short film, ‘Spomenicima ne treba verovati’ (Don’t believe in Monuments’, 1958) which depicts the attempts of a young woman to make love to a sculpture of a reclining male figure in a park was criticised and shelved for being too erotic.[14] Twenty years later, the editors of the youth magazine Polet (Enthusiasm) were taken to court for publishing a profile of the Dinamo Zagreb goalkeeper, Milan Sarović. The accompanying images recorded Sarović emerging naked from a pool. The case provoked outrage, not least among feminists who saw hypocrisy at work.[15]

Tellingly, it was often the admix of sexuality and politics which attracted the strongest responses from the authorities. ‘WR: The Mysteries of the Organism’ was shelved, after being screened in a film festival in Pula – thereby adding greatly to its status as ‘forbidden fruit’.[16] And when Katalin Ladik appeared nude on the pages of Start and other magazines as well as in her public performances, her membership of the League of Yugoslav Communists was withdrawn for violating the ‘moral image’ of organisation.[17] Ladik was by no means an underground figure: in fact, her high visibility owed much to the support of state-licensed institutions – theatres, student centres and publications.[18] Perhaps her principal misdemeanor was not to to have put sexuality at the centre of her creativity, but to have become a popular figure, thereby escaping the marginal zone of the neo-avant-garde.

When editors of pornographic magazines or the organisers of GEFF 69 made the case for liberal attitudes, they couched their arguments in terms which aligned with state ideology: if desire was liberated and a far wider spectrum of sexual experiences recognized as ‘natural’, the result would be greater happiness, a condition which was, after all, the professed ideal of Yugoslav socialism. But at the end of the 1970s, a number of developments set the grounds for a radical and sometimes controversial rejection of this ‘theraputic’ view of sexuality. The vibrant Punk and New Wave scene (which penetrated deeply into performance and video art) as well as the ideas of group of Neo-Lacanian philosophers including Slavoj Žižek and Mladen Dolar were focused on far darker and sometimes morbid drives governing desire than the humanists of the 1970s. Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 12.59.56These two worlds merged in three ‘punk’ issues of Problemi, an important intellectual forum in Slovenia since the 1960s and then under the editorship of Dolar. In its punk issues (1981-3), Problemi identified closely with its subject, adopting the cut and paste aesthetics of the fanzine, and reproducing the lyrics of many of the most openly critical bands including Pankrti (Bastards) as well as darkly distopian comic strips. [5] So dramatic was the change from a sober journal to fanzine, that perhaps Dolar and his colleagues were engaged a particular and early version of what Žižek famously characterised as ‘overidentification’ in his later discussions of Laibach/Neue Slovenische Kunst.[19]

The second issue drew an official response. When the anti-socialist lyrics of bands like Gnile Duše (Rotten Souls) and photographs depicting lesbian sex in the second Punk issue were censored, the editors decided to overprint blocks on the offending material. This gesture did little to assuage the authorities, and Dolar was accused of having allowed the publication of pornographic material, and fined.[20] Despite this penalty, the third Punk issue (1983) was no less provocative in its hyperactive treatment of sex and violence. Spreads included illustrated features on erotic asphyxiation (a translation of an article from the Italian magazine, Fridigaire); the sadomaschostic lyrics of tracks by Borghesia, an electronic music group (see below); and a set of photographs by Miki Stojković of a man and topless woman playing with a large five-pointed star, the primary symbol of Titoism, under the title ‘Revolution is a Whore’.

Photos: Miki Stojković

Photos: Miki Stojković

Many of the authors of this material in Problemi were associated with FV 112/15, a theatre group established in 1980 by Neven Korda and Zemira Alajbegović. Abandoning the stage, FV 112/15 evolved rapidly into something like a multimedia platform for the production of alternative forms of culture, much in the DIY spirit of punk. It released records and audio cassettes through its music label; in 1982 it established a regular club night in Ljubljana, Disko FV, in 1982; it organised the Magnus, a festival of gay and lesbian films in 1984; and in 1982 four members (Dario Seraval, Aldo Ivančić, Korda and Alajbegović) formed a band, Borghesia, which achieved international success on the electronic music scene in the late 1980s. [7] According to Korda, VF 112/15 was not interested in shifting mainstream cultural practices and values: instead, the group staked out a zone where the conventions of Yugoslav life did not seem to apply, though happily drawing resources from state-funded institutions when needed (for, instance, borrowing the cameras owned by ŠKUC-Forum’s video section).[21]

One of the defining features of the videos made by FV members like Korda and close associates Marina Gržinić and Aina Šmid was the way they fused sexual and political images, a caustic zone in Yugoslav culture. Babara Borčić notes that much of the material that the FV artists snatched for their video projects featured ‘recognisable political personalities, rituals and manifestations including Tito’s funeral, or popular Yugoslav music stars’ as well as ‘shots from pornographic movies recorded from private Italian television programmes’.[22] Whilst early video works like Korda’s ‘Obnova’ (Renewal, 1983), compiled from clips emphasizing the industrial rhythms of sex in pornography, and Alajbegović’s ‘Tereza’ (1983) which TV footage of socialist ceremonies is intercut with popular melodramas, could be filed under the voguish category of ‘appropriation art’, another way of understanding this material is to see it as a queering of Yugoslavia socialism. FV videos and performances sought to unsettle the normative effects of state media, sometimes by eroticizing its heroes and sacred symbols. Recalling her activities at the time (particularly the video works made with Šmid), Gržinić 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.’[23]

In 1984 Borghesia – a FV 112 /15 offshoot – created a multimedia performance with the provocative title Lustmörder (Love Murder) in the Student Centre in Zagreb which it described as ‘a metaphysical process of discovering which is hidden by repression.’[24] [8] Eschewing the conventions of the rock concert, short videos – FV 112/15 productions – looped on eight TV screens standing on the stage and tableaux were performed by members of the group. In one, two men – wearing S&M garb – performed a disturbing ritual in which the first smeared and stretched bloody liver on the chest of the other before cutting into it with a knife. Two women dressed in shining plastic also took to the stage with whips. All the while, electronic music added menace of the performance (as perhaps did the lyrics, ‘He prefers hard sex and authority / iron-handed / jackboot / blood on the altar’). Emphasising denaturalization and excess, little about ‘Lustmörder’ was designed to encourage emotional identification. All was staged, as the emphasis on-stage screens made clear. (Roleplaying is, after all, the ‘unnatural nature’ of S&M). In her review for Start, Drakulić Ilić equated equated the ‘sex, perversion, violence, militarism’ in the performance with fascism.[25] This indictment hardly troubled the FV artists and their associates. Writing in Problemi in 1983 Gržinič and Alajbegović had presented their interest in transgression as a mode of critique: ‘The power of Ljubljana’s subcultural production lies precisely in the fact that it is not “high” art but, by using the creative operations of mass culture … and introducing content that [usually] serves the ideological function of the mass media (sexual repression, social control and manipulation, the use of banned symbols …) so that they are meaningfully radicalized, the dark side of a set of norms can be exposed, like “grafitti of the walls of a prison”.’[26] In other words, what is judged obscene or unnatural is not only a political matter but those ideological judgments become visible when the lines which have been drawn – whether consistently or not – are transgressed.

A poster by Dušan Mandić – a member of NSK/Irwin and designer of the third punk issue of Problemi – appeared on the stage of the Lustmörder performance with the words ‘1968 is over. 1983 is over. The future is between your legs’ (‘1968 je prošla. 1983 je prošla. Budućnost je između vaših noga’). The poster made it clear that Borghesia and other members of Ljubljana’s subculture rejected the progressive and universalising rhetoric of sexual liberation which had been announced so boldly at the end of the 1960s. Sex in subcultural Ljubljana had to be freed not only from the petit-bourgeois morality of the League of Communists but also from the humanist libertarians. Of course, the FV 112/15 position was not without its own contradictions: the organization of gay / lesbian nights at Disko FV and homosexual film festivals has been interpreted as brave acts of public advocacy at a time when homosexual sex was still illegal in parts of Yugoslavia and underground elsewhere; yet at the same time members of the group embraced queer alterity. And despite eschewing the common project of libertarian humanism, the FV 112/15 artists still approached sex and its repression as a social and political symptom. Writing about punk in Problemi 1981 Žižek had described it as a ‘symptom [that] reveals an intrusion of the suppressed “truth” of the most calm, most normal every life, of exactly that life that is shocked and annoyed by it. Symptom returns our suppressed truth in a perverted form …’.[27] After being promised as Yugoslavia’s remedy for more than a decade, sex in Ljubljana in 1984 was claimed as a sign of its defect


[1] Katalin Ladik interviewed by Aldo Bressan, ‘La poetessa che recita nuda sulla scena’, in L’Europeo (3 December 1970) 36–41 reproduced in Miško Šuvaković, Moć žene: Katalin Ladik retrospektiva 1962 – 2010 (Novi Sad: Muzej savremene umetnosti Vojvodine, 2010) 90.

[2] Ivo Lukas, ‘Intimna Nega’ in Sineast, 11 (1970) 41

[3] Mihovil Pansini cited in Lukas, Sineast, 40.

[4] See Sezgin Boynik, ‘Contributions to a Better Apprehension and Appreciation of Plastic Jesus’ in Život Umjetnosti, no. 83 (2008) 80-91.

[5] See Ksenya Gurshtein, ‘When Film and Author Made Love: Reconsidering OHO’s Film Legacy,’ in Kino!, no. 11–12 (2010) 128–54.

[6] On OHO’s engagement with land art see Maya Fowkes, The Green Bloc. Neo-avant-garde Art and Ecology under Socialism (Budapest: CEU Press, 2014) 65-110.

[7] Ćosić cited in Miško Šuvaković, The Clandestine History of the OHO Group (Ljubljana: Zavod P.A.R.A.S.I.T.E., 2010) 9.

[8] Ibid, 104.

[9] Kozomara cited by David Spurr, ‘Liberal Magazines Abound in Yugoslavia’ in The Montreal Gazette (26 July 1972) 17.

[10] Cited in Spurr, ‘Liberal Magazines Abound in Yugoslavia’, 17.

[11] Biljana Žikić, ‘Dissidents liked Pretty Girls: Nudity, Pornography and Quality Press in Socialism’ in Medij. Istraž, v. 16, no. 1 (2010) 59.

[12] It is noteworthy that Kozomara had been the scriptwriter for one of the major films of the Black Wave, Živojin Pavlović’s ‘Kad budem mrtav i beo’ (When I am Dead and Pale’, 1967), in which a number of women characters enter willingly into casual sexual relations with the central male character. See Branislav Dmitrijević, ‘Suffragettes, Easy lays and Women Faking Pregnancy’ Bojana Pejić, ed., Gender Check. Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe (Vienna: Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, 2009) 46-52.

[13] Start editorial (1975) cited by Žikić, ‘Dissidents liked Pretty Girls’, 64.

[14] Daniel Gerould, Liberated Cinema: The Yugoslav Experience, 1945-2001 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002) 60.

[15] Slavenka Drakulić Ilić, ‘Muški su nešto drugo in Polet (2 April 1980) 13. This essay is also reproduced in her anthology Smrtni grijesi feminizma. Ogledi o mudologiji (Zagreb: Znanje 1984)

[16] Ibid, 142.

[17] Cited by Miško Šuvaković in Moć žene: Katalin Ladik retrospektiva 1962 – 2010 (Novi Sad: Muzej savremene umetnosti Vojvodine, 2010) 85.

[18] In fact, many of the works discussed in this essay were funded indirectly by the state, often through organisations like Neoplanta Film in Novi Sad (the producer of Križnar’s Beli Ljudje’ and Makavejev’s ‘WR: Mysterija organizma’). See Gal Kirn, Dubravka Sekulić and Žiga Testen, eds., Surfing the Black. Yugoslav Black Wave Cinema and Its Transgressive Moments (Amsterdam: Jan Van Eyck Academy, 2012) 63-8.

[19] Slavoj Žižek, ‘Why are Laibach and NSK not fascists?’ in Inke Arns, ed., Retroprincip (Frankfurt am Main: Revolver, 1993) 49-50.

[20] Dolar interviewed in Jones Irwin and Helena Motoh, Zizek and his Contemporaries (London: Bloomsbury, 2014) 93-112.

[21] Neven Korda, ‘FV and the “Third Scene” 1980 – 1990’ in Liljana Stepančič and Breda Škrjanec, eds. FV Alternativa osemdestih (Ljubljana: Mednarodni grafični likovni center, 2008) 312.

[22] Barbara Borčić, ‘Video Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism’ in Dubravka Djurić, ed., Impossible Histories. Historical Avant-gardes, Neo-avant-gardes, and Post-avant-gardes in Yugoslavia, 1918-1991 (Boston: MIT press, 2003) 514

[23] Marina Gržinić, ‘The Video, Film, and Interactive Multimedia Art of Marina Gržinić and Aina Šmid, 1982–2008‘ in Marina Gržinić, Tanja Velagić, eds., The Video Art of Marina Gržinić and Aina Šmid, trans. Rawley Grau (Vienna: Erhard Löcker GesmbH, 2008) 48

[24] Cited by Slavenka Drakulić Ilić, ‘Fašizam na alternativnoj sceni’ in Start (28 July 1984).

[25] Ibid.

[26] Marina Grzinič and Zemira Alajbegović, ‘Ljubjlanska subkulturna scena’ in Problemi (October-November 1983) 26.


[27] Žižek (1981) cited in Irvin and Motoh, Žižek and His Contemporaries, 114.


Hasior’s Dreck

Eastern Europe, Modernism, Uncategorized


This essay is a transcript of a talk given in Zakopane in late 2014. It will appear in a book edited by Kola Sliwińska.


Władysław Hasior, ‘Yma Súmac’ (1961) Coll: Muzeum Śląski (Katowice)

Władysław Hasior, ‘Yma Súmac’ (1961) Coll: Muzeum Śląski (Katowice)

Junk and trash seemed to rise to the surface of Polish culture in the mid 1950s. Of course, in the aftermath of the catastrophe of the Second World War, the country itself was full of debris. Ruins and bombsites still considerably outnumbered new buildings in Warsaw and elsewhere; and because the Stalinist economy did little to provide new clothes and furnishings for a needy population, the Poles had become adept at the arts of repair and bricolage. Nevertheless, a new kind of trash that one might even be called modern appeared in the People’s Republic of Poland (PRL) during the so called Thaw, the turbulent period of reforms which followed Stalin’s death in 1953. New trash is, of course, close to being an oxymoron. But this trash was new in one important sense: it was the chosen medium of a number of young modernist film makers and artists. After the Stalin years (1949-53) – during which culture had been required to deliver ringing messages of progress to society – artists embraced the opportunity to explore hitherto closed-off zones including those filled with junk.

Władysław Hasior was one of these junk artists. His earliest works embraced the particular kind of primitivism which is offered by the decrepit. Works like his portrait of the Peruvian singer, ‘Yma Súmac’ (1961) and ‘Srebrna maska’ (Silver Mask, 1961) were assembled from broken and exhausted material which would otherwise have been thrown away as trash. Writing in Ty i Ja in 1966, Hanna Kirchner pointed out the value that Hasior found in waste:


Hasior is a poet and philosopher of things, exploring the dialectic of their existence in the human world. He forms altars, statues, monuments and shrines with objects that seem to coexist with man, forming his natural surroundings because they are worn and poor. They provide [Hasior’s] masks, and allusions. His compositions are most often anthropomorphic figures wound from wire, moulded with soap, arranged from panes of various kinds of glass. Sometimes a great body is suggested by bread, an anachronistic machine or a cast-iron stove …[1]


Others interested in animating trash at the time included the young filmmaker Roman Polański. Before the director achieved international success with his feature films, he made a number of shorts including ‘Gdy spadają anioły’ (When Angels Fall, 1959) and ‘Lampa’ (Lamp, 1959). ‘When Angels Fall’ begins with the journey of an old woman to work along the streets of an empty city, populated with little more than dustbins. She is an attendant in a public toilet, one which is highly ornamented in the Victorian manner. Her clients – drunks and workers – seem to trigger thoughts of her life and loves, presented in flashback. Memory, the anticipation of death, human waste and other themes beloved by Samuel Beckett run through this 21 minute film. In ‘Lampa’, a single scene movie by Polański, a man repairs dolls in his workshop. The camera records his crafts, panning over the china faces and limbs of the figures in his care – all bathed in the warm light of oil lamps. Then time seems to jump forward: the man is older and the workshop is lit by electric light. When the workshop is shuttered at the end of the day, it catches alight (or perhaps is incinerated by the menacing anthropomorphised electrical meter). The dolls are destroyed. Polański’s film seems particularly bleak: there is no catharsis, no redemption.

Z. Beksiński, Dno, photocollage, c. 1958/9 - coll: National Museum in Wroclaw

Z. Beksiński, Dno, photocollage, c. 1958/9 – coll: National Museum in Wroclaw

Artist Zdzisław Beksiński’s early photographs seem to share much in common with Hasior’s art and Polański’s early films. His portraits and nude studies appear distorted or torn, as if the negative has been through some kind of trauma or the portrait has offended its owner. Pathological and even misogynistic images, Beksiński’s subjects in these early works appear defaced as if by some violent act. Other works were organised in sets with three parts, often featuring amateur photographs, reproductions from magazines and text books, damaged negatives and pages from entries into dictionaries. ‘Dno’ (‘Bottom’, 1958/59) for instance, features a nineteenth century studio portrait of young girls and close-up of a tombstone: in between, a column from the page of a dictionary are reproduced marking a descent from ślub (wedding) to śmierć (death).

Trash found its way into Polish theatre at around the same time. Poet Miron Białoszewski established Teatr na Tarczyńskiej (Tarczyński Street Theatre) in his apartment in Warsaw in 1955. Drawing upon a circle of friends in the artistic avant-garde, Białoszewski with Ludmiła Murawska, painter and actress, and Ludwik Hering formed a small company, ‘Teatr Osobny Trzech Osób’ (The Individual Theatre of Three Individuals). They performed fragments from the classical cannon including works by Cyprian Norwid, Juliusz Słowacki, Adam Mickiewicz and William Shakespeare as well as Białoszewski’s own plays. Finding a grotesque character in everyday life, his works drew upon the language and experience of Warsaw’s streets finding absurd proportions in the most ordinary things. What is significant, for this talk at least, is the way in which he dressed his dilapidated flat, with Białoszewski and Murawska producing crude costumes and backdrops by painting cardboard. It also furnished the props. If the drama called for a door or a dog, one was ‘on hand’. A chair could be a character.

Miron Białoszewski and Ludmiła Murawska in Songs for Chair and Voice, Osobny Theatre, Warsaw 1958 (Photo: Marek Piasecki, 1957 in the collection of Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej)

Miron Białoszewski and Ludmiła Murawska in Songs for Chair and Voice, Osobny Theatre, Warsaw 1958 (Photo: Marek Piasecki, 1957 in the collection of Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej)

This sensibility also shadows artist, dramatist and writer Tadeusz Kantor’s 1961 concept of ‘realność najniższej rangi’ (‘the reality of the lowest rank’), a term which he used to describe the power of lowly objects to stimulate the imagination: ‘being, death, love … exist somewhere in a poor corner, a parcel, a stick, a bicycle wheel … bereft of pathos or illusion.’ In his words, ‘refuse, cast-off ends and odds’ were conscripted throughout his career into productions, performances and happenings.[2]

Cover of April 1963 issue of Ty i Ja magazine designed by Roman Cieślewicz

Cover of April 1963 issue of Ty i Ja magazine designed by Roman Cieślewicz

The taste for junk seemed to spread widely in the early 1960s, even becoming something like a popular fashion. This is evident on the pages of Ty i Ja (You and I), a popular magazine launched in 1959 by the Ligia Kobiet (Women’s League), an offshoot of the official Polish United Worker’s Party. Early on, however, its editorship was taken over a group of young writers and designers who shared a taste for the démodé. Printers’ devices, illustrations from nineteenth century school books and studies of natural history were used to ornament the pages of the magazine. In appearance, the magazine was a kind of printed collage in which out-of-date images were folded into the present – interviews with film stars and directors, short stories and reports of new fashions in London and Paris. Its covers – often created by Franciszek Starowieyski and Roman Cieślewicz – were a play on the romantic possibilities of the magazine’s title, but often tended to the eccentric and even absurd.  This graphic style found its way into numerous publications in the period, not least Andrzej Banach’s 1964 monograph on Hasior.[3]



What significance might we attach to this taste for broken and out-of-date images and things? And what lay behind their appeal? One fact is evident: these things originated in another time. Not antiques or saintly relics, these out-of-date things might be best described by the Polish word ‘starocie’ (lit. ‘old things’). Their primary value lay in the very fact of their survival. This was as much the product of rhetoric as it was a matter of fact: the party-state had gone to great lengths to announce that the Poles were now living in a new epoch. In this way, many of the objects which feature in Hasior’s art were doubly lost.

Home of Hanna and Gabriel Rechowicz from Ty i Ja, Feb. 1963

Home of Hanna and Gabriel Rechowicz from Ty i Ja, Feb. 1963

During the 1960s starocie in PRL was domesticated, literally. There was a marked fashion amongst poets and painters, film makers and academics – the intelligentsia – to furnish their homes with scuffed Biedermeier chairs, collections of vernacular spoons, earthenware jars, dingy seventeenth century portraits and other minor survivors from the past. We know this because each month in the 1960s Ty i Ja featured their homes in a regularly feature called ‘My Home is My Hobby’. Other regular features guiding this taste for the old included the series ‘Kolekcja nie śmietnik’ (‘Collection Not Trash Can’). The aesthetic was so consistent that it is barely worth singling out examples. But perhaps the home of artists Gabriel and Hanna Rechowicz – best known for their contemporary style murals in socmodernist shops and other public buildings – warrants special mention. Their ‘Anty-mieszkanie’ (Anti-apartment) on Lekarska Street in Warsaw, organized around an enormous decorated sleigh from the late nineteenth century, traded the entire apparatus of conventional domestic living for the aestheticism of starocie.[4]

Homes filled with starocie might be what Russian philosopher Mikhail Epshtein, writing in the 1980s, called ‘lyric museums’:


What kind of museum is it where ordinary Things are on display, and what right does it have to draw attention to them? … every Thing, no matter how insignificant, can possess a private or lyrical value. The latter value depends on the degree to which a given Thing has been lived and thought through … The purpose of this museum is expose the endlessly diverse and profound significance of Things in human life, their rich figurative and conceptual meaning which is not at all reducible to the utilitarian function.[5]


This order of home is a place for the care of things in the final stages of their lives before they are cast into the dump (recall ‘Kolekcja nie śmietnik’). Writing in the Soviet Union in its last years, Epshtein identified curatorial attitudes in the making of these homes. The significance of this care for venerable things is all the more pronounced because the USSR had announced a preference for the future over the past. In fact, this was one of the major ideological planks of the Thaw throughout the Eastern Bloc. One of the signs of destalinisation was the pronounced and loudly-voiced avowal of science and technology. The ‘Leninist way’ – which Stalin, according to Khrushchev and his followers, had abandoned – meant reengaging with the rational and international values of science, technology and engineering. New prospects for Soviet-style socialism were being opened up by computing, abstract art and modern movement architecture. Yet inside intelligentsia homes – quite literally – one might enter into a world fashioned with the material remnants of the past. Like Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of Paul Klee’s figure of Angelus Novus, these citizens of the PRL surely looked on these fragments of history as the remains after an explosion.

There is perhaps little new in this taste (and that is perhaps the point). Nationalist intellectuals had turned their homes into collections of mementoes of the nation in the nineteenth century when the Poles lived as unwilling subjects of foreign empires.[6] But the dominant mood of intellectual life in Poland in the 1950s and 1960s was not national romanticism or even decisive anti-communism. Perhaps if we look for one common thread, we will discover it in the low-key but pervasive existentialism of the age. This was found, for instance, in a marked preference for things as found rather than as they might or even ought to be according to the certitudes of Marxism-Leninism; and in attention to social realities, even when irrational and absurd. It is hardly surprising that the plays of Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco were performed on Polish stages during the Thaw to enthusiastic audiences. Beckett’s ‘Fin de partie’ – a play in which two characters live in dustbins – was staged in Kraków’s Theatre 38 in November 1957, just six months after its premier in London and then on Polish television in Stanislaw Hebanowski’s production in 1958.

Ionesco’s ‘Les Chaises’ was performed at the Teatr Dramatyczny in Warsaw in August 1957; a play which ends with an invisible crowd or audience on stage. This is Ionesco’s direction:


For the first time human noises seem to be coming from the invisible crowd: snatches of laughter, whisperings, a ‘Ssh!’ or two, little sarcastic coughs; these noises grow louder and louder, only to start fading away again. All this should last just long enough for the real and visible public to go away with this ending firmly fixed in their minds. The curtain falls very slowly.[7]


The theatre audience watches and listens mutely to an absent presence, the other audience ‘on’ the stage. Things – the chairs – mark both presence and absence. They are starocie. As such, they need to be seen in terms which had been set by Hannah Arendt in her 1958 book The Human Condition. Of things like starocie, she wrote: ‘it is this durability which gives the things of the world their relative independence from men who produced and use them, their “objectivity” which makes them withstand, “stand against,” and endure, at least for a time, the voracious needs and wants of their living makers and users. From this viewpoint, the things of the world have the function of stabilizing human life, and their objectivity lies in the fact that…men, their ever-changing nature notwithstanding, can retrieve their sameness, that is, their identity, by being related to the same chair and the same table.’[8] Viewed in this way things, starocie marked continuity after catastrophe (of war and of Stalinism) and, conversely, the lack of such ordinary things was the cause of disconnection.



Władysław Hasior, The Widow, 1957

Władysław Hasior, The Widow, 1957

Despite its existential appeal, starocie does not adequately describe either the form or the distressed condition of many of the works by Hasior, Beksiński and other junk artists of the late 1950s. Marked by abjection and destruction as well as the uncanny effects of animism and anthropomorphism, they offered little solace. A work like Hasior’s ‘The Widow’ (1957), a figure whose roughly-hewn face might well have been fashioned from the butcher’s cleaver which forms her torso, suggests anguish in both theme and appearance.

Władysław Hasior, Grandmother, sculpture, 1960 Muzeum sztuki, Lodz.

Władysław Hasior, Grandmother, 1960 Muzeum sztuki, Lodz.

His ‘Prababka’ (Grandmother’, 1960) has the appearance of a human body which has turned into fat or even shit. Perhaps ‘dreck’ – a word which I have adopted from the writings of Tomasz Kitlinski – might be a better term than starocie to describe the turn to junk.[9] A Yiddish / German word meaning filth or crap, dreck can signify rotting matter but also kitsch. Products can be dreck, as for Berthold Brecht, for instance, were American theatre.[10] And for Hasior and other Polish artists in the Thaw who sculpted or filmed garbage, wounded and broken bodies too could be dreck. Here was an an aesthetic which testified to the dark subject of unheroic and brutal death.

There may be a generational perspective at work here. These artists were teenagers during the Second World War. Hasior was born in 1928; Beksiński in 1929; Polański in 1933; and Cieślewicz in 1930. (That this was – seemingly without exception – a male aesthetic might also give pause for thought too). Whilst Polański’s biography – as a Jewish child in the Kraków Ghetto and then in hiding – is exceptional, the experience of witnessing human corpses and dead animals in the streets during the war was not. Violence constituted a material fact of this generation’s youthful existence. Polański’s film ‘Lampa’ in which dolls are caught in a total inflagration is evidently an allegory for the Second World War and perhaps even the ovens in which the bodies of so many victims of the extermination camps were tossed. This said, I don’t think that it is appropriate to use art to diagnose individual traumas. Art is not a symptom. But it may be productive to reflect on the ways in which the dreck aesthetic of the late 1950s and 1960s might constitute a ‘return of the repressed’ within the public realm of Polish culture.

During the Stalin years, there had been a knot of factors which had restrained clear recall of the traumas of the Second World War. For instance, Socialist Realism – a Soviet import to Poland in the late 1940s – put a tight representational frame around the representation of violent death. In the Soviet Union – where the rules and rituals of the cult had already been drawn up – death had been attached to utopia. Literary scholar Katerina Clark writes ‘In the Stalinist novel, death and token mutilation have a predominately mythic function. When the hero sheds his individualistic self at the moment of passage, he dies an individual and is reborn as a function of the collective.’[11] Numerous canvases in which Soviet heroes die on Nazi gallows or fighting on the battlefield played their part in embroidering the myth of the Great Patriotic War. In the PRL, however, the representation of death was treated rather more coyly. There are relatively few images of violent death during these years, perhaps because the new regime put such a premium on the joyful project of constructing socialism.[12]

At the same time, political imperatives put the representation of the recent past under considerable ideological pressure. Events and even individual memories were reframed to match a historical script that had been written in the Kremlin. Individuals were forced – with threats or coercion – to retract testimonies which they had already given. Eyewitnesses – like the members of Polish Red Cross who had examined the corpses of Polish offices murdered at Katyn – had to retract their wartime affidavits; and violence against the Jews by Poles was placed sous rature by an ideology which trumpeted brotherhood. But things were different in 1956. During the waves of destalinisation which rocked the Bloc in this year, the representation of the recent past was one of the fields in which the party-state offered concessions in order to hold onto power. For example, during the Stalin years the authorities kept a firm grip on the representation of the Warsaw Uprising. The Home Army soldiers who had risen against the German occupation of the city in the summer of 1944 were described as fascists and reactionaries in official accounts of the conflict. But after 1956, films, new books, monuments and memorials marked changed attitudes to what was now called the ‘heroes of the Warsaw’.[13] In fact, the new regime led by Władysław Gomułka sought to tap popular feeling by announcing – also in 1956 – a competition for a new public memorial dedicated to all those who fought for the city including the Home Army. This announcement was amplified by great swells of public opinion. Hundreds of letters were sent to newspapers suggesting not only the ideal form of the memorial (often a triumphal arch or a funeral barrow) and the most suitable site (usually one connected with fighting in the city), but offering reflection about what should be remembered – the outbreak of the war in 1939, the Ghetto uprising of 1943 as well as the events of the summer of 1944. In April 1958 nearly 200 remarkably diverse designs were exhibited to 100,000 visitors in the Zachęta Gallery. Art critic Aleksander Wojciechowski said this ‘is not an “artistic” competition but a national plebiscite’. So great was public interest that discussion of the competition threaten to spin out of Party control. And so, as Olga Grzesiuk Olszewska has shown, a smaller closed competition was announced in 1959, which specifying that the monument be sited in Plac Teatralny.[14] The winning design was a massive figure of a sword-wielding siren, the traditional emblem of the city, sculpted by Marian Konieczny, a young artist from Cracow who had studied at the Repin Institute in Leningrad.

Marian Konieczny, Memorial to the Heroes of Warsaw, installed in Plac Teatralny Warsaw in 1961. Collection: NAC

Marian Konieczny, Memorial to the Heroes of Warsaw, installed in Plac Teatralny Warsaw in 1961. Collection: NAC

Monumental and symbolic, this design was insensitive to the acute historical injuries that the ‘Memorial to the Heroes of Warsaw’ had been originally proposed to heal.

Perhaps the broken bodies, filth and decay of the dreck aesthetic needs to be seen in the context of the short-lived freedoms of the Thaw. Death, carefully managed and allegorized during the Stalin years, was rehabilitated and it could now be represented in its most abject forms, in the decay of the flesh and irrational violence. Artworks which looked on this order of death were created, or in some cases brought out of hiding. The Ogólnopolska Wystawa Młodej Plastyki (The All Poland Exhibition of Young Artists), known to art historians as the Arsenal Exhibition in Warsaw in 1955 is usually understood as a return of modernism in Polish art: it was also an opportunity to explore prohibited themes, not least death. For instance, Waldemar Cwenarski’s canvas ‘Pożoga’ (Conflagration, 1951) – which depicts a horse stamping people beneath its flailing hooves – was exhibited there for the first time; as was Izaak Celnikier, ‘Getta’ (Ghetto, 1949), a Jewish pietà.[15]

Izaak Celnikier, ‘Getta’ (Ghetto, 1949)

Izaak Celnikier, ‘Getta’ (Ghetto, 1949)

When six years later Hasior had his first one man show in the Salon Współczesności in the Foyer of the Jewish Theatre in Warsaw, one critic called found ‘distant echoes of the Arsenal exhumations’ there.[16]

There were many representations of dreck deaths in this period. Perhaps the most emphatic, insistent example was to be found in the cinema the final scene of Wajda’s ‘Ashes and Diamonds’ (1958). Dramatising the final hours and acts of a doomed former Home Army soldier, now in the anti-communist underground, the film is ideologically compliant. But it contains a kind of excessive image of his death. After carrying out his assassination mission despite increasing doubts, Maciek – the Home Army fighter – or as the Stalinists might have put it a ‘fascist assassin’ – is shot and dies slowly alone, digging himself into a rubbish heap. Even in the Thaw, he remains an enemy, but now a pitiable one as a young adherent to the old and doomed ideology of capitalism. But Wajda’s treatment goes far beyond what required politically, even in the turbulent years of the Thaw: this pointlessness of this death is emphasized by the setting, the trash heap.

Viewed in terms of dreck aesthetics, Hasior’s early works seem to take on far darker associations than the later characterization of his work as a kind of PRL pop artist might suggest. Typically, his works combine broken and discarded materials to form bodies which, missing limbs or lacking faces, remain marked by their incompleteness. They seem to give human form to the words of Bruno Schulz, the Jewish novelist who was murdered by a Nazi officer in Drohobycz in 1942. In his 1934 ‘Traktat o manekinach (‘Treatise on TailorsDummies’), the arrogant father of the narrator sets out a vision for ‘a second generation of creatures who stand in open opposition to the present era’: ‘… we shall not demand on either durability or solidity of workmanship: our creations will be temporary, to serve a single occasion. If they are are human beings, we shall give them only one profile, one hand, one leg, the one limb needed to perform their role.’[17] After the Second World War and Stalinism, Hasior’s generation – avid readers (and sometimes illustrators[18]) of Schulz’s works when they were republished in 1957 – perhaps felt as if they were living with the consequences of this vision.[19] Providing none of the solace of starocie, Schulz’s writing also provided uncanny images of matter: ‘There is no dead matter …’ says the father. ‘Its lifelessness is merely an outward show, behind which, unknown forms of life lie hidden’.[20] This was not a claim about the soul but a perspective on the most abject forms of bare life. Some of Hasior’s early works seem approach this condition in which humanity itself is on the edge of slipping into matter. Hasior’s ‘Prababka’ (Grandmother, 1960), a figure slumped in a broken wheelchair, seems more like excreta than a woman. [see figure 7]

Władysław Hasior, ‘Fragment bohatera’ (‘Fragment of a Hero, 1963). Muzeum Narodowe Poznan

Władysław Hasior, ‘Fragment bohatera’ (‘Fragment of a Hero, 1963). Muzeum Narodowe Poznan

In the early 1960s many of Hasior’s works – made with Dreck and representing broken or incomplete bodies – were given themes and titles which suggest lofty themes of transcendence and sacrifice such as ‘Anioł Stróż’ (‘Guardian Angel’, 1964) and ‘Fragment bohatera’ (‘Fragment of a Hero, 1963). Moreover, he increasingly turned to Christian archetypes to lend meaning to his assemblies of junk. Do these titles dip his art in irony? Maybe not. It is probably more accurate to suggest that they pointed to his ambition. Here, perhaps, Hasior departed from his dreck colleagues. So many of the Thaw works which have been discussed in this talk were marked by a disavowal of monumentalism, whether in terms of scale and setting, or the pathos which public art of this kind was and often still is required to deliver. Monuments – as the Heroes of Warsaw competition made clear – had to promise some kind of redemption (just as Socialist Realist representations of death were required to infer rebirth). It seems clear that after the brutality of the Second World War and the hollow triumphalism of the Stalin years, dreck aesthetics provided the means for some kind of reflection on experience without making an accommodation with any kind of historical (or even eschatological) script. However, with such titles, these works point out the direction in which Hasior was to travel as a monument maker after the Thaw. His public monuments from Pomnika Rozstrzelanym Partyzantom (Monument to the Shot Partisans, 1964) at Kuźnice to the Rzeźba Płonące Ptaki (‘Flaming Birds Sculptures’, 1978-80) were created as part of the larger project of managing history in the PRL.[21] Dedicated ‘To those, who fought for the Polishness and freedom of the Pomeranian lands’, Hasior’s roughly-cast birds mounted on rickety cannon carriages at Koszalin was an attempt to monumentalise dreck.


[1] Hanna Kirchner, Hasior’ in Ty i Ja (January 1966), p. 10.

[2] Tadeusz Kantor, ‘Reality of the Lowest Rank’ in A Journey Through Other Spaces. Essays and Manifestos, 1944–1990, ed. Michal Kobialka (Berkeley, CA.: University of California Press, 1993) 30.

[3] Andrzej Banach, Hasior (Cracow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1964).

[4] Felicja Unichowska, ‘Moje hobby to mieszkanie’ in Ty i Ja (February 1963) 15-18. On Gabriel and Hanna Rechowicz see Klara Czerniewska, Gaber i Pani Fantazja. Surrealizm Stosowany (Warsaw: 40,000 Malarzy, 2014).

[5] Mikhail Epshtein, ‘Things and Words: Towards a Lyrical Museum’ (1988) in Alla Efimova, Lev Manovich, eds., Tekstura: Russian Essays on Visual Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993) 153.

[6] See Beth Holmgren, Rewriting Capitalism. Literature and the Market in Late Tsarist Russia and the Kingdom of Poland (Pittsburg, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998) 167-77.

[7] Eugène Ionesco, Plays: The lesson. The chairs. The bald prima donna. Jacques; or, Obedience (London: Calder, 1958) 84.

[8] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958) 137.

[9] See Tomasz Kitliński, ‘A Brief History of Cleanliness and Abjection in Poland’ in Dream? Democracy! A Philosophy of Horror, Hope & Hospitality in Art & Action (Lublin: Maria Curie-Sklodowska Press, 2014) 189-195.

[10] Cited in Anthony Heilbut, Exiled in paradise: German refugee artists and intellectuals in America, from the 1930s to the present (New York: Viking Press, 1983) 161.

[11] Katerina Clark, The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000) 178.

[12] German corpses appear casually and cruelly accompanied by a dog in Wojciech Fangor’s ‘Wyzwolenie’ (Liberation, 1950) or as cold war martyrs in his ‘Matka Koreanka (‘Korean Mother’, 1951). But these are rare appearances.

[13] Made before the Thaw and released in 1956, Andrzej Wajda’s film ‘Kanal’ depicts the final hours of insurgents in the ruins of the city. The first illustrated popular book on the theme – Jan Grużewski and Stanisław Kopf’s Dni Powstania. Kronika Fotograficzna Walczącej Warszawy (Days of the Uprising. A Photographic Chronicle of Warsaw in Arms) was published by PAX in 1957.

[14] Irena Grzesiuk-Olszewska Polska Rzezba Pomnikowa w Latach 1945-1995 (Warsaw: Neriton, 1995).

[15] Celnikier’s painting raises the question of how and when the Shoah was distinguished as a distinct historical phenomenon within the culture of Polish remembrance – a question which Hasior does not help us answer.

[16] S. Ledochowski, ‘Malarstwo, rzezba, grafika. Rzezba sie nazywa’ in Nowa Kultura, nr. 12 (1961) pp.6-7 cited in Wladyslaw Hasior. Europiejski Rauschenberg? (Kraków: MOCAK, 2014) 198.

[17] Bruno Schulz, Sklepy cynamonowe / Sanatorium pod klepsydrą (Cracow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1985) 61-2.

[18] In 1963 Roman Cieślewicz produced collages for a new edition of Schulz’s Sklepy Cynamonowe employing illustrations from zoological studies and illustrated newspapers reporting war.

[19] In 1957 the Kraków publisher Wydawnictwo Literackie, published an anthology of Schulz’s writings with the title Sklepy cynamonowe. Sanatorium pod Klepsydrą. Kometa with an introduction by Artur Sandauer.

[20] Bruno Schulz, Sklepy cynamonowe / Sanatorium pod klepsydrą (Cracow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1985) 60.

[21] See Marcin Zaremba, Komunizm, legitymizacja, nacjonalizm: nacjonalistyczna legitymizacja władzy komunistycznej w Polsce (Warsaw: Trio 2001).

Staging for the End of History: Avant-garde Visions at the Beginning and the End of Communism in Eastern Europe

Eastern Europe, Modernism
Cover of Výtvarné Uměni, issue 8-9, 1967.

1. Cover of Výtvarné Uměni, issue 8-9, 1967.

In 1967 Stanislav Kolibal, the Czech artist, was commissioned to design the August-September cover of Výtvarné Uměni (Fine Arts) (fig 1). This was to be a special issue of the periodical, commemorating – like many other magazines and newspapers published in the Eastern Bloc that autumn – the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution. He adapted a 1919 photograph of Tatlin at work with two assistants on the timber model of the ‘Monument to the Third International’ (1919-1925). Erasing the background and with the image blending from black to red like a split-colour screenprint, Kolibal turned this historic image into a symbol of unfulfilled aspiration. In a year of booming triumphs (including the opening of the Ostankino Tower, the world’s tallest building serving the world’s largest broadcasting complex, and the massive hydroelectric plant in Bratsk, in south-eastern Siberia), Kolibal’s design seemed to point to incompleteness, perhaps provocatively.

This appearance of Tatlin’s Tower on the cover of this magazine was, of course, just one minor and forgotten episode in the afterlife of this mythical structure. As Svetlana Boym has charted, the ‘Monument to the Third International’ has moved through history in an ‘off-modern’ fashion, not on the straight tracks of progress but in the diagonal, serpentine moves of the knight on the chess board (an idea which she derives from the writings of Viktor Shklovsky).[1] It was paraded, as a large model, through the streets of the Petrograd in the early 1920s; its spiral was straightened out and capped with Lenin when Stalin planned what she calls ‘the revolutionary building par excellence’, Boris Iofan’s Palace of Soviets;[2] it reappeared in numerous reconstructions in exhibitions around the world – in Stockholm in 1968, in London in 1971, in Paris in 1979 and elsewhere; and then it returned to Russia when sots-artists adopted the spiral structure to reflect on the folds in Soviet history. The Soviet Union, the social experiment to which Tatlin’s Tower is so closely tied may be over, but, for Boym, it still has an unpredictable, even adventurous, future. The ‘off-modern perspective,’ she writes, ‘allows us to frame utopian projects as dialectical ruins – not to discard or to frame them but rather to confront and incorporate them into our own fleeting present.’[3]

Other fantastic visions produced by the Soviet avant-garde have formed different constellations across time and geography. Iakov Chernikov’s machine-inspired architectural schemes were summoned up in the 1960s on both sides of what was once called the Iron Curtain. Peter Cook of the Archigram group in the United Kingdom, for instance, republished the Soviet architect’s works regularly in his books.[4] Chernikov’s 1931 portfolio Construction of Architectural and Machine Forms (Konstruktsiya arkhitecturykh i mashinnyk form) presented stirring images of architecture in movement, as well as a ‘rational’ logic for the design of forms appropriate to the new revolutionary era. Cranes, gantries and rails as well as machine parts, suggested the means by which architecture could escape its static condition. Thirty years later, the same desire for architectural motion was directed by Archigram into its ‘plug-in’ and ‘walking cities’.[5] At the same time in Czechslovakia, Jiři Hrůza argued – perhaps boldly – his 1967 book The Utopian City (Město Utopistů), surveying many speculative projects including those designed by Ivan Leonidov and Chernikov in the 1920s as well as those of his contemporaries such as Karel Honzík, the future could operate as a critique of the present: ‘Just as we can find in the concepts of utopian architectural avant-garde both audacious and prescient anticipations of the future, we can also find escapism from the coarse and prosaic reality of life, an ideal dream formed in disillusionment with the present …‘.[6] Another constellation was formed when the fashion for Deconstruction in architecture emerged in the 1980s: the movement’s champions sought forebears in the Soviet avant-garde. ‘Deconstructivist Architecture’, the landmark 1988 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York put the largely unbuilt visions of seven European and American architects (Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind, Rem Koolhaas, Peter Eisenman, Zaha Hadid, Bernard Tschumi, and the firm Coop Himmelb(l)au) in the company of sketches and drawings by those members of the Soviet avant-garde, Ivan Leonidov, El Lissitzky and Chernikov, whose work seemed to trouble the ‘structural order … of stability, unity and harmony’.[7] Their designs on paper were adopted as precedents for ‘…provocative architectural design which appears to take structure apart – whether it be the simple breaking of an object or (its) complex dissimulation into a collage of traces.’[8] However, it seems clear in retrospect that the Soviet avant-garde provided less a model for a radical interrogation of convention than a clutch of techniques for fragmenting and torquing space. In fact, the connection turned out to be just as tenuous as the movement’s engagement with Jacques Derrida’s philosophy from which it borrowed its name.

Never constructed, Tatlin’s Tower and Chernikov’s architectural fantasies belong, it seems, to an immaterial and somewhat mythic wing of art and architecture which has been written into history by seizing the imagination of architects, filmmakers and artists, as well as historians and curators, particularly in the West. This engagement with the Soviet past has never been disinterested. Éva Forgács has, for instance, argued that the category of Eastern European modernism was invented by the New Left in the West, charting events like London’s Hayward Gallery exhibition, Art in Revolution, organised with the support of the Soviet Ministry of Culture in 1971, as a kind of hopeful act of wish-fulfilment, particularly after 1968. Such exhibitions sought to reforge the broken link between revolutionary aesthetics and revolutionary politics.[9]

The merits of Forgács’s argument notwithstanding, what kind of assessment should be made of the afterlives of Soviet architectural experiments in what might seem to be a far less auspicious setting, namely that of the people’s republics of Eastern Europe? Here, particularly after 1968, the meanings allocated to Soviet culture by the intelligentsia were increasingly negative, yet the engagement with the Soviet avant-garde was, as I will show, often expert and sometimes profound. Researchers from Central Europe did much to excavate the art history of the Soviet avant-garde. Keen consumers of this scholarship, artists and architects from the Bloc were drawn to the models of practice and artistic languages that this intellectual archaeology provided. But what motivated impelled these revivals? Should we adopt Boym’s concept of the off-modern ‘architecture of adventure’ to make sense of these appearances? Or perhaps we might see these afterimages of constructivism and other unfinished Soviet experiments in darker terms as hauntings, a conceptualization of the past which affords agency to the dead. In 1994 Derrida invented a playful pun, ‘hauntology’, to reflect on the ways in which Marxism would haunt the world, and perhaps the left-wing intelligentsia, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Unsurprisingly, for philosopher-prophet of Deconstruction, a return is always its opposite, a new event:

Repetition and first time: this is perhaps the question of the event as question of the ghost. What is a ghost? What is the effectivity or the presence of a spectre, that is, of what seems to remain as ineffective, virtual, insubstantial as a simulacrum? Is there there, between the thing itself and its simulacrum, an opposition that holds up? Repetition and first time, but also repetition and last time, since the singularity of any first time makes of it also a last time. Each time it is the event itself, a first time is a last time. Altogether other. Staging for the end of history. Let us call it a hauntology.[10]

In what follows, I would like to adapt Derrida’s question – if not his method – to ask: what was the effectivity of the spectres of the Soviet avant-garde in Eastern Europe under communist rule? And, in particular, what kind of ghostly role did they play at its end in Eastern Europe? How was the revolutionary culture which formed at its beginning summoned at its end?

Thaw Ghosts

Of course, the Soviet imaginary was already full of its own ghosts. After his death in January 1924, Lenin was regularly conjured up by those who claimed to be his successors. The ‘Leninist spirit’ was invoked at every crisis in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc as a kind of energizing, restorative force. After the disaster of Stalinism, for instance, loyal Soviet citizens were encouraged to ‘return to Leninism’ and the policies of Perestroika and Glasnost channelled the Bolshevik leader, at least according to their authors in the Kremlin. Lenin was even issued a subpoena in Prague in 1968 as Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into the city: sardonic graffiti appealed on the city’s walls calling for the Bolshevik leader – ‘Wake up Lenin, Brezhnev’s gone mad.’[11] Gallows humour to be sure, but idea that Lenin was only sleeping was not, however, an entirely ironic one. When the Bolshevik leader died in 1924, a scheme was hatched by the faithful to ensure that he would be brought back to life one day. Embalming his body was just the first step in a complete programme of rejuvenation: ‘Our duty, our task, consists in bringing back to life all who have died …’.[12] The Bolshevik project sought, as Nina Tumarkin describes, to abolish death. Lenin’s tomb would be the symbol of this great programme of salvation. It was built in the form of three great cubes, following the teachings of Kazimir Malevich: ‘The cube is no longer a geometric body’ he announced. ‘It is a new object with which we try to portray eternity, to create a new set of circumstances, with which we can maintain Lenin’s eternal life’.[13]

Malevich was – in turn – a spectral presence in the communist world long after his death in 1935. Artists, writers, architects and poets in Eastern Europe felt compelled to search for and discover the Suprematist artist particularly after Stalinism. Malevich’s art flickered between visibility and obscurity, and myth and experience. It was known but rarely seen. For instance, one of the pioneering scholars of Soviet modernism, Szymon Bojko, a Pole, recalled his visits in the late 1950s and early 1960s to seek out his art – which he knew in reproduction in the avant-garde press in inter-war Poland – but then hidden in the stores of the Russian Museum in Leningrad. His fluent Russian, official invitations from the USSR Fine Arts Association and high-ranking status as a Central Committee member from a fraternal nation did little to improve his chances of seeing these suppressed works, such was the extent of the ‘embarrassment’ and ‘fear’ attached to Malevich’s art.[14]

Even though a posthumous injunction was placed on his art, Malevich could still be invoked. During the Zhdanovshchina in Poland, Polish modernist architects Helena and Szymon Syrkus – figures of considerable authority in the pre-war avant-garde – found that their friendship with the Suprematist artist twenty years earlier could be turned into a threatening indictment. Reflecting on their 1947 schemes for the Koło Housing Estate in Warsaw, Jan Minorski, an architect working in the Institute of Urbanism and Architecture, attacked the Syrkuses: ‘These architects often stress that their teacher was Malevich, who stressed the “tension” between solid forms and those of Suprematism. But why refer to a prophet if, in the new reality, the former “master” has nothing to say? This is poor advisor without authority! If Lachert’s work [a modernist architect – DC] is not understandable, how much more so is the work of the Syrkuses. Their forms, one must say, disturb the viewer.’[15] This was June 1949 but Minorski had already fully absorbed Soviet techniques of character assassination. Helena Syrkus had too: taking the stage at the international gathering of modernist architects, CIAM 7 (Congrès internationaux d’architecture modern), in Bergamo later in the summer of the same year, famously she gave her audience a public demonstration of the Soviet mania for ‘samokrytyka’, a public confession of the ‘errors’ in one’s earlier thinking or actions.[16] She argued that the kind of technological invention and abstract volumes which the CIAM members in the audience were committed, and that she herself had promoted so vigorously until recently, were already outmoded in the age of Soviet progress.

Malevich was ‘rehabilitated’ in Poland during the Thaw. The art press – enjoying a new found tolerance of abstract art – reproduced images of his architectons and the ‘Black Square’ (1913) copied from the pages of pre-war avant-garde periodicals.[17] These wan images were animated by memories of the artist’s month-long visit to Warsaw in 1927 from surviving members of the pre-war avant-garde, Henryk Stażewski and Jonasz Stern.[18] And when modernist Polish poet Julian Przyboś curated an exhibition of ‘Précurseurs de l’art abstrait en Pologne’ at the Galerie Denise René in Paris in 1957, he included works by Malevich, a gesture which claimed the artist as Pole (identified as Kazimierz Malewicz) and, more importantly, reconnected Warsaw with the twin capitals of pre-war modernism, Paris and Moscow. As the two works by Malevich which had been given to the Syrkuses after his exhibition in Berlin in 1927 – a suprematist composition on canvas and a maquette of an architecton – were lost (stolen from their studio in the winter of 1945), Przyboś had to borrow two canvases from the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.[19]

The Czechoslovak engagement with Malevich runs on parallel tracks, even if the effects of the Thaw were felt there later than in Poland. Artists were drawn to his non-objective world from the late 1950s. In 1959 writer and collage-artist Jiří Kolář created a concrete poem dedicated to the artist,Pocta Kazimíru Malevičoviin which, according to Raoul-Jean Moulin ‘a page was torn in a gesture symbolizing the repudiation of the traditional painter.’[20] Six years later Kolář’s compatriot, composer Rudolf Komorous, created the first piece of electronic music in the country. Entitled ‘Malevich’s Grave’ (Náhrobek Malevičův), the piece eschewed melody, perhaps deriving its long tones and occasional pulses from the artist’s floating geometric masses and lines. In 1968 artist Stanislav Zippe of the Synteza group used a recording of Komorous’ ‘Malevich’s Grave’ to lend synaesthesic effects to one of his kinetic artworks, ‘Transformation’ (Proměna). Installed in the exhibition hall of the Music Theatre (Divadlo hudby) in Prague, the piece featured four white square surfaces placed on the ground and lit with lamps. A central light overhead changed colour whilst four light sources closer to the squares gained and reduced in brightness.

It is perhaps not surprising that Malevich was the first figure of the Soviet avant-garde to be excavated so thoroughly (in the West too[21]). Suprematism lent itself to these kinds of modern séances, bringing a measure of mysticism to an environment which was, by dint of official ideology, now to be organized by rational principles. In 1956 the Bloc had been signed up by Nikolai Bulganin in the Kremlin to Scientific-Technological Revolution. This was to be a new rational programme which would put Eastern Bloc societies, after Stalin, back on the path to full-blown communism. Yet, what is striking about the way in which the embrace of science contained a cosmic or even a spiritual aspect, even in the heart of the empire. Dvizhenie (Movement) – a group founded in Moscow art schools in the early 1960s by a group of seven young artists including Francisco Infante and Lev Nussberg – included the most eager acolytes of Malevich. Ambitious and resourceful, Nussberg and Infante developed a sophisticated practice from their still incomplete understanding of the activities of the Soviet avant-garde in the early 1920s. A fascination in infinite forms, derived from geometry, was combined, for instance, with a shrewd understanding that the emerging design and technology infrastructure of the Scientific-Technological Revolution presented new opportunities for modern art. Exhibited in public institutions like the Kurchatov Institute for Atomic Energy and the Institute of High Temperatures in Moscow, their abstract works could be characterized as research. This was not a matter of rhetorical camouflage: science seemed to be offering novel materials for the production of a new order of synthetic art. Nussberg wrote:

The synthesis of different technical means and art forms is [an] important side of our searches. An artist must take all the basic means that exist in nature-light-color, sound, movement (not just in time and space), scents, changing temperatures, gases and liquids, optical effects, electromagnetic fields .. .., etc. All depends on the creative fire of the individual.[22]

This sense of excitement is captured in early works like Infante’s 1963 ‘Space-Movement-Infinity’, an exercise in geometry in which a series of two-dimensional crystal forms are overlaid. Turning in an infinite space, they seem to recede to a luminous red point. Subtitled ‘Design for a Kinetic Object’, Infante developed his ‘design’ into a sculpture fashioned from revolving cubes illuminated with small lights. Whilst such schemes – ostensibly – might be presented as models or prototypes for some unspecified public art, they are better understood as explorations into what Malevich had famously called the non-objective world in 1916.[23] Their philosophy of art combined a ‘politically correct’ enthusiasm for Soviet science with an illicit interest in metaphysics. Space exploration had opened – at least in the minds of young artists – a perspective on the infinite. The group’s 1966 manifesto, broadcasting their commitment to Kineticism, announced the dawn of a new sensibility:

We are pioneers.

We unite the WORLD to KINETICISM

TODAY’S man is torn apart, sick. “Man, are you not tired of destruction?”

TODAY’S child is already the cosmic generation.

The stars have come nearer. Then let ART draw people together through the breath of the stars![24]

Formally, many of the group’s artworks eschewed the dynamic and dissonant forms favoured by the Soviet avant-garde (typified by Lissitzky’s ‘Red Wedge’, 1920). Symmetry and balance pointed to a hidden order in the universe. Nussberg wrote ‘It is more rational to try with the help of absolute regularity – symmetry (asymmetry belongs here as well, it is a symmetry of a higher order, only more universal and more hidden!) to shape all the richness of the human spirit.’[25]

Whilst abstract art remained a matter of considerable controversy in the Soviet Union throughout the 1960s, Dvizhenie operated with official imprimatur, only occasionally falling foul of its patrons in the party-state. The group’s chief ideologue, Lev Nussberg, was a well-connected and skilful operator, adept at persuading the Soviet authorities to support the group’s projects. In the late 1960s, Dvizhenie’s works travelled abroad, first in the Eastern Bloc and then in Western Germany.[26] They were widely reported in the international press too, providing vivid evidence of the creativity of Soviet culture after its apparent ossification during the Stalin years.

Back to the Future

To find examples where Soviet avant-garde and politics intersect critically we have to look to the late 1960s or, more precisely, the anniversary of the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution in the autumn of 1967. This event – as I’ve noted above – was embraced by communist authorities across the Bloc as a way of asserting the authority of the Soviet Union as the leading force in world history. Throughout the 1960s, the impending anniversary formed an important, magnetic point on the horizon. Numerous Soviet achievements in the fields of science, engineering and technology were timed for completion in 1967. The ‘eternal’ figure of Lenin was central to these anniversary events too. A new print of Eisenstein’s film ‘October’ (1927) was reissued with many of the cuts made during the Stalin years restored and a new soundtrack composed by Dmitry Shostakovich (op. 131, ‘October – a symphonic poem in C minor’).

Lev Nussberg’s design for a son et lumiere spectacle at the Finland Station, Leningrad, organized as part of the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution, 1967

2. Lev Nussberg’s design for a son et lumiere spectacle at the Finland Station, Leningrad, organized as part of the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution, 1967

The film played an ambassadorial role, travelling around the world. Similarly, Dvizhenie – the group of young artists who had been such keen enthusiasts for Malevich’s art – orchestrated an electric tribute to Lenin in Leningrad (fig 2). Four enormous screens were placed around the monument to the Bolshevik leader outside the Finland Station, the historic site of his return to Russia in 1917. Historic film footage as well as Soviet movies dramatising the revolution were projected onto three screens whilst three beams of colour brought a suggestion of movement to Lenin’s looming silhouette on the fourth. A sound collage of music, poems and Lenin’s speeches filled the air.

The festive rediscovery of the ‘spirit of October’ was also stage-managed across the Bloc. Numerous exhibitions were organized and publications issued with official imprimatur. The August and September 1967 issue of Výtvarné Umění – with Kolibal’s cover – was dedicated to the Soviet avant-garde, much of the content drawn from research which had been conducted in Soviet archives and collections by Miroslav Lamač and Jiří Padrta since the early 1960s.[27] It was a remarkably rich visual and textual archive: alongside numerous high quality images of works by Gabo, El Lissitzky and others, it featured translations of historic documents such as extracts of Malevich’s 1919 book On New Systems in Art (O Novykh Sistemakh Visk) and Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner’s 1920 ‘Realist Manifesto’ (Realisticheskii manifest). (The only engagement with the Soviet present in this issue was a lengthy section on the Dvizhenie group including a translation of the group’s 1966 manifesto).

‘New Art at the Time of the October Revolution’ exhibition, Współczesna Gallery, Warsaw, November 1967- during installation.

3. ‘New Art at the Time of the October Revolution’ exhibition, Współczesna Gallery, Warsaw, November 1967- during installation.

In Warsaw, the Współczesna Gallery under director Janusz Bogucki opened a show on 8th November 1967 (the fiftieth anniversary in the Gregorian Calendar) entitled ‘New Art at the Time of the October Revolution’ (‘Nowa sztuka czasów Rewolucji Październikowej’) (fig 3). The interior of the gallery was organised as ‘agit-tram’ to represent the propaganda work of the avant-garde during the Civil War period. The artworks included prints, architectural models, books and magazines, as well as ceramics produced by the Soviet artists, many of which were drawn from the collection of Szymon Bojko. Efsir Shub’s ‘The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty’ (1927) and Sergei Eisenstein’s ‘Strike’ (1925) were screened and pre-war leftist artists, including Futurist poet and gulag-survivor Anatol Stern, were invited to speak in the gallery. Similarly, in Budapest students from the Faculty of Architecture at Budapest Technical University operated a semi-official gallery (i.e., tolerated, meaning uncensored and unfunded) in their student centre at ut. Bercsenyi 28-30. One 1968 show, curated by Tihamér Gyarmathy, an abstract painter whose career began before the Second World War, explored the heritage of the Soviet avant-garde.[28] Copies of works by Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky and Tatlin were put on display.

On one hand, these investigations into the history of the avant-garde enjoyed official imprimatur and, as such, belong to a history of rehabilitation of inter-war modernism which can be traced back to the Khrushchev Thaw. As Susan Reid has noted of the Soviet context: ‘Under the protection of the regime-led reorientation of archive, practitioners and historians particularly rehabilitated Constructivism and other modernist tendencies in disgrace since the early thirties, retrieving them as instructive precedents for contemporary architectural and design tasks …’.[29] On the other, the concept of revolution appears to have been a matter of some concern to the Polish authorities and perhaps others around the Bloc in 1967 and 1968. The original title planned for the anniversary exhibition in the Współczesna Gallery in Warsaw, ‘Avant-garde and Revolution’ (Awangarda i rewolucja) was, seemingly, too inflammatory, too prospective. Officials working for the state press agency, MPiK ‘Ruch’, which provided the space for the Gallery in the Great Theatre (Wielki Teatr), demanded the unmistakably retrospective title ‘New Art of the Time of the October Revolution.’[30]

What triggered this anxious reaction on the part of the Polish authorities remains obscure. But the answer may be found in the emergence of the New Left – often student radicals – across the People’s Republics. Critical voices in Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Prague Spring and Hungary were becoming increasingly bold making ‘revolutionary’ demands: famously Milan Kundera, for instance, took to the stage at the Writers Congress in June 1967 demanding freedom of speech and denouncing the ‘degeneration’ of socialism under Soviet rule of Czechoslovakia.[31] In spring 1968 in Hungary, the state rounded up and prosecuted radical socialists – many children of prominent communists – for conspiracy. Their crimes were negligible: inserting leaflets denouncing ‘the red bourgeoisie’ in Hungary and the Soviet Union into library books; and attempting to make contacts with hard-liners in Albania and China (lending the accused the badge of Maoism). Nevertheless, some fifty were put on trial and some imprisoned.[32]

4. Scene from ‘The Agitators’ (Agitatorok), directed by Dezső Magyar, 1969-70.

4. Scene from ‘The Agitators’ (Agitatorok), directed by Dezső Magyar, 1969-70.

By a curious turn of events, some of the Hungarian radicals in the dock in 1968 stood before the camera in 1969 as actors when the Béla Balázs Studio commissioned director Dezső Magyar to make ‘The Agitators’ (Agitatorok), an experimental feature film marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Hungarian Soviet Republic (fig 4). Magyar and Gábor Bódy adapted Ervin Sinkó’s novel The Optimists (Optimistak) by combining it with other historical and contemporary sources. In the manner of Godard’s film ‘La Chinoise’, the student actors ‘ventriloquise’ the words of György Lukács as well as Mao and Che, and the soundtrack includes music by the Rolling Stones. By folding past and present together, this cinematic portrait of Hungary’s short-lived 1919 commune asked what happened to the ‘spirit of revolution’ in Eastern Europe after the repression of the Prague Spring and Kádárism.

‘The Agitators’ is also reminder of the fact that the rediscovery of the Soviet avant-garde took place alongside that of ‘local’ constructivists like the Blok group in Poland and Lajos Kassák, the Hungarian activist.[33] The fact that ‘living’ connections to the avant-garde could be established in the late 1960s and early 1970s was significant. In Hungary, for instance, artist, poet and activist Kassák carried a particular kind of moral authority. In 1967, in the final year of his life, his Képarchitektúra (‘Picture Architecture’) works of the late 1910s and 1920s were exhibited in the Adolf Fényes Hall in Budapest (another ‘tolerated’ zone). These abstract schemes – based on the dynamic organization of geometric shapes and volumes – eschewed conventional and immediate architectural concerns in favour of a universal architectural language, perhaps belonging to the future. In his manifesto-like statement of 1922, Kassák announced:

Képarchitektúra rejects all schools – including the schooling of ourselves.

Képarchitektúra does not confine itself to particular materials and particular means; like Merz-art it regards all kinds of materials and means as useful to express itself.

Képarchitektúra does not dabble in psychology.

Képarchitektúra does not want anything.

Képarchitektúra wants everything ….[34]

The majority of the visitors to the Adolf Fényes Hall in 1967 saw these works for the first time. (‘This’, wrote Kassák, ‘will be the first introduction of constructivism. The gate has opened, and I am walking through it’[35]). This added to his myth as what Forgács has called ‘an anti-authoritarian authority’:[36] a poet, artist and activist, he began his career before the First World War and died in 1967. He was opposed to the bourgeois culture of the Dual Monarchy and antagonistic to György Lukács’s Nyugat progressives; an active figure during the Commune in 1919 who was said to have resisted the instrumentalisation of his art as propaganda;[37] harassed by the Police in Hungary in the 1930s and the new regime which took hold in Hungary in 1949. Paradoxically perhaps, Kassák – the polemical and abrasive writer and artist associated with montage and other fragmented aesthetics – offered some kind of continuity in a broken chain of catastrophes in Hungary in the twentieth century. At the end of his life Kassák was adopted by the emerging neo-avant-garde as the symbol of intellectual independence (despite being awarded the Kossuth Prize). Often it was Kassák’s positions in relation to power which drew his adherents but some were drawn to his art as well. In 1973, for instance, neo-avant-garde artist and film-maker Dóra Maurer printed three issues of Ma, the first of which not only adopted the title but also the layout of Kassák’s avant-garde magazine (1916-1925).

Reclaiming the Past

The generation of artists and architects who had engaged with Soviet Suprematism and Constructivism after the Thaw did so in order to reflect on the future, perhaps optimistically. Another order of schemes emerged across the Eastern Bloc in the 1970s and 1980s which were concerned with the past. This was evident within the phenomenon of ‘paper architecture’, fantastic schemes designed by architects, often as entries in international competitions.[38] Russian architect Yuri Avvakumov made models which invoked the tribunes and propaganda structures designed by Gustav Klutsis and El Lissitzky at the end of the Soviet Union; whilst his compatriots Dmitry Bush and Dmitry Podyapolsky imagined a mirror structure in the centre of a teaming megalopolis as a white square. Their 1986 drawing carried the evocative and unmistakable title ‘The Cube of Infinity.’ Widely exhibited and published, the schemes were firmly associated with Soviet Russia, with Avvakumov reintroducing the term for the title of an exhibition in Moscow in the offices of a literary magazine, Jonost (Youth), in 1984.[39] But the phenomenon predated its Avvakumov’s act of nomination. Artists and architects associated with the Tallinn School produced an exceptional body of paper architectural schemes through the course of the 1970s which often used the vocabularies of Constructivism and Suprematism somewhat ironically: Leonhard Lapin designed, for instance, an ‘Anti-International Monument. Tower (Stable) For Artist Valdur Ohakas’ Donkey’ in 1974, alluding perhaps to the primitive techniques employed in the construction of the first Soviet monuments.[40] Moreover, the phenomenon of Paper Architecture was spread more widely across the Bloc than is generally recognized: young Czech architects Lukas Velíšek, Martin Suchánek and Michal Šourek, also revisited Tatlin’s Tower in a scheme in the early 1980s which envisaged this symbol of ‘permanent revolution’ as a metaphor for a human life, one which necessarily results in death. Their tower was organized as a kind of instrument for recycling the remains of dead buildings. Perhaps it is easy to read such schemes with the hindsight of history, nevertheless, it seems that these paper projects often took pastness, entropy and breakdown as their themes.

5. Gábor Bachman, Miklós Haraszti, György Konrád and László Rajk, The Striker’s House, entry into the Bulwark of Resistance competition, Japan Architect, 1986.

5. Gábor Bachman, Miklós Haraszti, György Konrád and László Rajk, The Striker’s House, entry into the Bulwark of Resistance competition, Japan Architect, 1986.

One scheme produced in Hungary in 1985, ‘The Striker’s House’, stands out. Created in response to a competition announced in Japan Architect with superstar architect Tadao Ando as the judge, ‘The Striker’s House’ is an unorthodox axonometric drawing combining photographic elements and dynamic arrangements of lettering (fig 5). The house is an angular structure formed of black and red ‘wedges’ arranged on a structure fashioned from what seem to be industrial materials. Revolving on a locomotive turntable, it is an agit-train wagon as if designed by a latter-day Constructivist. Train tracks radiate in all directions and the railway shed is filled with posts and banners dressed with slogans to motivate the striker. Perhaps these are the tools of the commissar or the activist, ready to travel wherever he or she is needed.

‘The Striker’s House’ was the invention of a remarkable quartet of intellectuals who combined New Left and neo-avant-garde pedigrees. They were artist Gábor Bachman and architect László Rajk, the son of the victim of the first show trial in Hungary in 1949, László Rajk snr. A samizdat publisher and distributor, Rajk designed covers for books published by AB Kiadó (AB Press) – including Tibor Méray’s notes on the trial of Imre Nagy, Why Did They Have to Die? (Miért kellett meghalniuk, 1982) and reports of strikes in Poland, Radom-URSUS 1976 (1983). He also illustrated György Dalos’s 1985, a samizdat extension of Orwell’s dystopian novel, imagining the death of Big Brother and the end of his authoritarian rule.[41] Rajk and Bachman had founded their creative partnership in 1981, designing interiors and film sets, often in a modish neo-constructivist style. In fact, Rajk had been involved in publishing Soviet designs even earlier, lending materials which he had sourced as a student in Canada, for an issue of the semi-official periodical, Bercsényi 28-30, published in 1977 by students of the architecture faculty at the Technical University. In conceiving ‘The Striker’s House’, they were joined by the dissident writers György Konrád and Miklós Haraszti whose books had indicted the communist state for its betrayal of socialism. Haraszti, a former Maoist, for instance, had written Darabbér (which appeared in English as A Worker in a Worker’s State[42]), a book about the exploitative use of piece rates in Hungarian factories in 1973. Circulated as samizdat in just eleven copies, he was arrested and charged with incitement against the state. In jail, he went on hunger strike and had to be force-fed.

‘The Striker’s House’ was a memorial work, commemorating the wave of strikes in Poland in 1979 which had led to the Gdansk Accords between the state and the Solidarity Trade Union.

What we discussed with Konrád and Haraszti, and then finally decided on was the idea that the strike is the extreme extreme of peaceful resistance. It is not only peaceful but you put yourself and your family in danger. It is like standing in front of the guns naked. The resistance is your own self-sacrifice. This is what we want to demonstrate with a house which first loses its exterior and finally stands naked.[43]

This theme – even though expressed in a coded fashion – was sufficient to make this drawing a threatening object in 1985 (by which time Solidarity had been forced underground). As a result, its authors were only able to send it to Japan with the help of a friendly contact in the American embassy in Budapest. This was, in effect, samizdat architectural design.

One reading of ‘The Striker’s House’ scheme is to see it as an ironic object, commemorating anti-Soviet politics in a proto-Soviet style. But its Leftism should not be read as dissimulation. Perhaps this image is evidence both a kind of nostalgia for revolutionary politics, as well a note of envy on the part of these Hungarian writers and artists for the alliance between the workers – expressed here in the leftist iconography of industrial civilization – and the intelligentsia which had given Solidarity such force in Poland. This is something that Konrád and Iván Szelényi had argued for in their Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power, written in the summer of 1973 and published in samizdat.[44] On its pages, we find another expression of the desire of Hungarian intellectuals on the Left to be ‘anti-authoritarian authorities’.

‘The Striker’s House’ was not built: it was paper architecture after all. But, remarkably, it was given material form as the subject of an 1985 film made by Bachman and shot in the industrial ruins of the gas plant near the Óbuda district of the capital. This facility had been closed down in the previous year. Shot illegally on video with Gábor Bódy (an artist, film-director and an actor who had written the screenplay for ‘The Agitators’), the film records ‘The Striker’s Home’ being pushed on rails by a group of men into the decaying factory. Like the demonstrations from the 1920s during which Tatlin’s Tower had been wheeled through the streets of Petrograd, this object of the machine age is moved by human power. The structure is decorated with the slogan ‘Munka és Tett’ (Work and Action), a combination of the title of two journals published by Kassák in the 1910s and 20s. The block lettering makes the connection explicit. One of the figures delivers a speech with a megaphone, accompanied by workers beating and welding. Like a concert of industrial sounds played out in this industrial ruins, Bachman seems to forge a link with then fashionable style of Industrial Music (created by Einsturzende Neubauten and others). Delivered in the hectoring tones of a commissar, this monologue sounds like an absurd manifesto. Philosophic and poetic at the same time, it points to the uselessness of art. ‘The aim of art is to describe what cannot be described … Increasingly decaying into irrationalism … Hunger is not the only reason for our insomnia … It is impossible to fill even only one hour of my existence with that, I want someone to cut my throat with a sharp stone!’ Bachman’s film took its title, ‘The Construction of Nothing’ and commissar’s sloganeering from a text by János Megyik, an émigré Hungarian artist living in Vienna.[45] Absurdity and irrationalism conjoin with these images of ruination to point to the utter exhaustion of utopianism. ‘The Striker’s House’ – in this second iteration – was a symbol of entropy.

‘The Striker’s House’ was a self-conscious attempt to form a loop between the start and the end of the Soviet system. It was after all, an expression of anti-Soviet sentiment by some of its most active opponents. But it did not actually mark the end. That role was, perhaps, played by another design by Bachman and Rajk four years later. In 1989 they were commissioned to design the setting for one of the milestone events at the end of communist rule in Eastern Europe, the reburial of Prime Minister Imre Nagy and the leadership of the 1956 Uprising. Nagy and his colleagues had been executed two years after the suppression of the Uprising, their bodies buried – face down and bound – in unmarked grave. The question of how to remember the Uprising and its victims was one of the tensions between official and dissenting culture in Hungary in the 1980s. In 1988 the state made a concession by establishing a Committee for Historical Justice (Történelmi Igazságtétel Bizottság) which began a process of reassessing the show trials and the cases of those executed after 1956. Within a year the state had ‘agreed to the reburial of those executed on 16 June 1958’, the date of Nagy’s death.
 That event – which took place in June 1989 – became a milestone in Hungary’s transition to a new, more democratic regime.

6. Gábor Bachman and László Rajk, decorations for the reburial of Imre Nagy and his associates, Műcsarnok Gallery, Budapest, 16 June 1989.

6. Gábor Bachman and László Rajk, decorations for the reburial of Imre Nagy and his associates, Műcsarnok Gallery, Budapest, 16 June 1989.

The ceremony took place in Heroes’ Square (Hősök tere) in the centre of Budapest. Six coffins – placed different wedge-shaped, angular forms – were organized in ranks in front of the Műcsarnok, a neo-classical art gallery (fig 6). Five contained remains of the leaders of the Uprising, whilst the sixth remained empty to symbolise more than 300 others who were executed. Bachman and Rajk designed symbolic objects which narrated the Hungarian experience of communist rule. The slanted rostrum echoed the propaganda structures designed by Gustav Klutsis and El Lissitzky in the 1920s but now had the appearance of age, seemingly rusty. It supported an angular ‘white wedge’ featuring a burned-out circular form, reminiscent of the Hungarian flags which were stripped of their communist insignia during the 1956 Uprising. These were not the only historical allusions. László Rajk – Rajk’s own father – had been the victim of a show trial in 1949 and had been reburied as a hero during the short Nagy government in October 1956. His catafalque been displayed outside the Kossuth Mausoleum before his remains were buried in the Kerepesi Cemetery. The theatrical treatment of the setting in 1989 had other historical echoes. Dressed in black and white linen for the event, the Műcsarnok overlooks Heroes Square. During the Commune in 1919, the national figures on the Millennium Monument of 1900 (which lend the square its name) were also covered in red fabric and a temporary statue of Karl Marx embracing the workers was erected. For an event marking the end of communist rule, the reburial of the victims of 1956 was suffused with traces of its beginning, namely the Commune. The event was intended by the authorities to be an act of atonement: Bachman and Rajk’s design sought to lay much more to rest.

The diverse encounters of Eastern European intellectuals with the Soviet avant-garde never cohered into a orderly body of knowledge or a coherent historical project. Images of abstract art and fantastic architectural schemes were summoned up, often at moments of political tension, because they provided the means to reflect on revolution. Copies or facsimiles of original Soviet works, these were invariably short-lived apparitions. Moreover, the interest was a somewhat specialist taste on the part of some Eastern European intellectuals. This, as I have suggested, was threaded with a latent concern about their own role in relation to power. Here, perhaps, another important difference with the rediscovery of the Soviet avant-garde in the West can be drawn. Constructivism and Suprematism were the subject of considerable market interest in the 1970s and 1980s as well as ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions like the Paris-Moscow 1900-1930’ curated by Pontus Hulton at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 1979. Only in the final years the communist rule in Eastern Europe was something similar attempted. In 1987 the Műcsarnok Gallery in Budapest (which had lent its entrance to the ceremony for the reburial of Nagy and the other victims of 1956) mounted ‘Art and Revolution: Soviet Art, 1910-1932’ (Muvészet és forradalom: Orosz-Szovjet muvészet, 1910-1932) with the support of the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A pioneering and extensive review of the Soviet avant-garde featuring original artworks by Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, Malevich, Kandinsky, Tatlin, Rodchenko and others from Soviet collections, the response of the public to the show was muted. Art critic and curator Katalin Keserü recalls an ‘almost ghostly visit paid by János Kádár on New Year’s Day 1987.’ What the secretary of the communist party and prime minister who had been given the reigns of power after the Soviet repression of the Uprising in 1956 thought of the exhibits is not known. ‘Most probably he had expected to see a social realist exhibition’, speculates Keserü, ‘but it is to his credit that he thoroughly examined the entire show, presenting the work of the avant-garde leading forward to that of Stalinism’.[46] Perhaps the Kremlin’s long-serving and loyal retainer was haunted by a sense of what-might-have-been.

[1] Svetlana Boym, Architecture of the Off-Modern (New York: Princeton University Press, 2008).

[2] Ibid, 14.

[3] Ibid, 36. See also Nathalie Leleu, ‘Mettre le regard sous le contrôle du toucher – Répliques, copies et reconstitutions au XXe siècle: Les tentations de l’historien de l’art’ in Les Cahiers du Musée national d’art moderne, no.93, (autumn 2005) pp.84–10

[4] Peter Cook, Architecture: action and plan (London: Studio Vista, 1967).

[5] See Simon Sadler, Archigram: Architecture without Architecture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005).

[6] Jiři Hrůza, Město Utopistů (Prague: Československý spisovatel,1967) 163.

[7] Philip Johnson and Mark Wigley, Deconstructivist Architecture, exh. cat., (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1988) 133

[8] Ibid, 11.

[9] Éva Forgács, ‘How the New Left Invented East-European Art’ in Centropa, 3:2 (2003) 97-100.

[10] Jacques Derrida, ‪Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International translated by Peggy Kamuf (London: Routledge, 1994) 10

[11] Galia Golan, ‪Reform Rule in Czechoslovakia: The Dubček Era, 1968-1969 (‪London: CUP, 1973) 244.

[12] Malevich cited in Karen L. Ryan, ‪Stalin in Russian Satire, 1917–1991, (‪Madison, Wis,: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009) 159.

[13] Nina Tumarkin, Lenin Lives!: The Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia (Cambridge, MA: ‪Harvard University Press, 1997) 190.

[14] See Szymon Bojko, ‘Kazimierz Malewicz – bohater tragiczny?’ in Obieg (May 2009) – – accessed 2 January 2015.

[15] Jan Minorski in O polską architekturę socjalistyczną. Materiały z Krajowej Partyjnej Narady Architektów odbytej w dniu 20-21 VI, 1949 roku w Warszawie (Warsaw: Min. Budownictwa, 1950) 65-6.

[16] Helena Syrkus later came to regret her forthright support for the Stalinist regime. See Syrkus in Ogólnopolski Narada Architektów (Warsaw: SARP, 1956) 485.

[17] See for instance, the February 1958 issue of Przegląd Artystyczny, which takes the form of a thirty-page calendar of the history of Polish avant-garde art that takes Malevich’s Black Square (1913) as a point of origin and ends with the 1957 exhibition, ‘Précurseurs de l’art abstrait en Pologne’ at the Galerie Denise René in Paris in 1957 which featured the suprematist’s works.

[18] On this visit see Andrzej Turowski, Malewicz w Warszawie: rekonstrukcje i symulacje (Warsaw: Universitas, 2002).

[19] H Syrkus, ‘Kazimierz Malewicz’ in Rocznik Historii Sztuki, v. 1 n. 1 (1976) 153.

[20] Raoul-Jean Moulin, ‘Une demystification de la parole et de l’image’ in Jiří Kolář (Paris: Opus, 1973) 20

[21] Margarita Tupitsyn has surveyed the shadow cast by Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ over abstract art and minimalism in the West since the 1960s in her book Malevich and Film (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002)

[22] Lev Nussberg, notes from an undated manuscript, cited by Vyacheslav F. Koleychuk, ‘The Dvizheniye Group: Toward a Synthetic Kinetic Art’ in Leonardo, vol. 27, no. 5, (1994) 433-436

[23] Kasimir Malevich, The Non-Objective World: The Manifesto of Suprematism (London: Dover Publications, 2003) Reprint of 1959 edition translated from the German by Howard Dearstyne (Chicago, P. Theobald, c. 1959).

[24] Lev Nussberg, Manifesto of Russian Kineticists (1966), as translated in Igor Golomshtok and Alexander Glezer, Soviet Art in Exile (New York: Random House, 1977) 164.

[25] Nussberg (1964) cited by Vít Havránek, ‘Transient and Dispersed’ in akce slovo pohyb prostor, exh. cat., City Art Gallery (Prague: 1999) 378.

[26] With close contacts in Prague Dvizhenie played a key channel for knowledge about the work of Soviet Constructivists in Czechoslovakia. Dušan Konečný, a Russophile art critic, was instrumental in publishing the group’s work in the Czech press as early in 1964 and bringing it to the city for an exhibition in 1965 (a show entitled Moskvské kinetické umĕni (Moscow Kinetic Art) at the Karlové Náměsti Gallery in Prague. Art critics, Jindřich Chalupecký, Miroslav Lamač and Jiří Padrta – each of whom wrote about Malevich – were visitors to Nussberg’s Moscow studio too. For detail on these exchanges, see Vít Havránek, ‘Transient and Dispersed’ in akce slovo pohyb prostor, exh. cat., City Art Gallery (Prague: 1999) 379-82. Dvizhenie were given exhibitions in Galerie Gmurzynska in Cologne in 1973 and Museum Bochum in 1978.

[27] They were commissioned by Carl Gutbrot, the director of the Dumont-Schauberg publishing house in Cologne. Their research was published in a book of Malevich’s texts and artwork edited by Hans von Riesen, Suprematismus – Die gegenstandslose Welt (Cologne: Verlag V. DuMont Schauberg, 1962). See – accessed 2 January 2015.

[28] Gyarmathy’s career began in the early 1930s and reached an early peak when his work was shown at the Salon des Réalites Nouvelles in Paris in 1947. During the 1950s went into ‘internal exile’ by refusing to exhibit his work.

[29] Susan E. Reid, ‘Design, Stalin and the Thaw’ in Journal of Design History, v. 10, no. 2 (1997) 112.

[30] Dorota Jarecka, ‘Janusz Bogucki, polski Szeemann?’ in Karol Sienkiewicz, ed., Odrzucone Dziedzictwo. O sztuce polskiej lat 80 (Warsaw: Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej, 2011) 26.

Two weeks later, the National Theatre staged Adam Mickiewicz’s poetic drama ‘Forefather’s Eve’ (Dziady, 1822) in the same building complex. It too was to planned as a fiftieth anniversary event: the play’s references to dull-witted bureaucrats and Tsarist despotism were in tune with Lenin’s attack on Tsarist Russia. But the Polish audience read the 1967 performance as allegory for the present. They jeered the imperial characters and applauded anti- Russian sentiment. The early closure of the play in late January 1968 – allegedly at the request of the Russian Embassy – was one trigger for a period of public protests and high tension in 1968 that has come to be known as the ‘March events’ (wydarzenia marcowe).

[31] See Dušan Hamšík Writers Against Rulers, trans D. Orpington (New York : Vintage Books, 1971) 168.

[32] See ‪Robert Gildea, James Mark, Anette Warring, eds., ‪Europe’s 1968: Voices of Revolt (Oxford: ‪Oxford University Press, 2013) passim.

[33] By the strange and brutal twists of intellectual history in Eastern Europe, prominent figures who had been conscripted to damn the avant-garde during the Stalinist years now lent their names and, sometimes, their memories to this project of historical disinterment. Pre-war modernist and apologist for Socialist Realism in the 1950s Jiří Kroha published a substantial study (with Jiří Hrůza) entitled Sovětská Architektonická Avantgarda (The Soviet Architectural Avant-garde) (Prague: Odeon, 1973) and Helena Syrkus wrote a vivid and detailed essay recalling her life-long engagement with Malevich – see footnote 18.

[34] Lajos Kassák, ‘Képarchitektúra’ (Picture Architecture) in Ma, March 1922, trans. George Cushing in The Hungarian Avant-Garde (exhibition catalogue Hayward Gallery, 1980) 116.

[35] Kassák cited by Ferenc Csaplár, ‘From Prohibition to Tolerance, Kassák’s Work and the Cultural Politics of the 1960s’ (2006) available at – accessed 2 January 2015.

[36] Éva Forgács, ‘“You Feed Us So that We Can Fight Against You.” Concepts of the Art and State in the Hungarian Avant-Garde’ in Arcadia – International Journal for Literary Studies, vol 41, no. 2 (December 2006) 264.

[37] Ibid, 267.

[38] See Deutsches Architektur Museum, Paper Architecture. New Projects from the Soviet Union (New York: Rizzoli, 1990); Alexey Yurakovsky and Sophie Ovenden, Post-Soviet Art and Architecture (London: Academy Editions, 1994).

[39] The first uses of the term in the Soviet context were critical, even self-critical. Viktor Vesnin in 1934, after the official adoption of Socialist Realism, reflected on his own post-revolutionary schemes: ‘The greatest sin of our modern architecture was that is had been mostly on paper, and this paper had been completely divorced from real practice’ See Constantin Boym, New Russian Design (Rizzoli: New York, 1992) PAGE

[40] See Andres Kurg and Mari Laanemets’ essays in Keskkonnad, projektid, kontseptsioonid Tallinna kooli arhitektid 1972-1985 (Environment, projects, concepts. Architects of the Tallinn School 1972-1985) (Tallinn: Eesti Arhitektuurimuuseum, 2008).

[41] György Dalos, 1985, trans. Stuart Hood and Estella Schmid (London: Pluto, 1983).

[42] Miklós Haraszti, A Worker in a Worker’s State trans. Michael Wright (Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1978).

[43] László Rajk interview with the author, Budapest, July 2012.

[44] György Konrád and Iván Szelényi, Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power, trans. Andrew Arato and Richard E. Allen (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1979).

[45] János Megyik, ‘A semmi konstrukciója’ Magyar Műhely 43-44 (1974), 33-39.

[46] Katalin Keserü on the history of the Műcsarnok – – accessed 2 January 2015

A Little Music: Sound Works by Wojciech Bruszewski

Eastern Europe, Music

This essay will appear in 2015 in a book reviewing the work of artist Wojciech Bruszewski.

In 1982 Wojciech Bruszewski compiled a number of experiments with sound that he had been making since 1976 in a short VHS compilation called ‘A Little Music’ (‘Trochę Muzyki’). Short films like ‘TV Music’ (1979), ‘Sternmusic’ (1979) and ‘Behaviour Music’ (1982) documented the improvised instruments which Bruszewski had made that converted images into sounds or notes which could change pitch and dynamics, and featured rhythmic effects. Described by Bruszewski as musical works, they were, however, indifferent to the conventions of artistry and personal expression on which music has relied for most of its history. Rather, these works – many produced using hacked electronic devices like televisions and video cameras – set out to explore the ‘gap’ between sound and image.

The ‘A Little Music’ pieces were not, however, Bruszewski’s first explorations into this intermedial zone. Bruszewski’s celebrated film ‘Yyaa’ (1973) – a key work in the history of the Workshop of the Film Form – was, it seems, a kind of cool, even ironic response to the illusion of synchrony which was central to cinema. As film theorist Rick Altman wrote in 1980:

The fundamental scandal of sound film … is that sound and image are different phenomena, recorded by different methods, printed many frames apart on the film, and reproduced by an illusionistic technology. Voices are uttered by cardboard cones, by mechanical instruments, by machines designed to meet the challenge of a world in which cities are too populous to be addressed by a single unaided human voice. Cinema’s ventriloquism is the product of an effort to overcome the sound-image gap, to mask the sound’s technological origin, and to permit the film’s production personnel to speak their sub-conscious mind – their belly – without fear of discovery.[1]

In ‘Yyaa’, Bruszewski filmed himself in a room in which the lights were switched on and off: occasionally, the image cuts to a close-up before switching back to a wide-view. Lighter, darker, closer, further … these edits provide a rhythm for the soundtrack, a seemingly unceasing scream: when the scene darkens, the pitch of Bruszewski’s scream alters; and when the camera closes in, the pitch changes again. Five minutes in duration, it soon becomes clear to the viewer that this is not an endurance test (in the manner, perhaps, of Marina Abramovic’s 45 minute attempt to exhaust her vocal chords, ‘Freeing the Voice’, performed in Copenhagen in 1975): Bruszewski’s long scream was in fact spliced together from a series of recordings. ‘Yyaa’ announced Bruszewski’s anti-humanism and anti-naturalism through an act of ventriloquism. It takes what is often understood to be the most ‘authentic’ forms of human expression, the howl, (which, as Altman says, seems to be the product of the sub-conscious mind or even the belly) and renders it strange. In ‘Yyaa’ the voice seems to be separate from the body, less a human capacity than a thing.

Similarly, in ‘Time Structure’ of 1977, Bruszewski filmed a stop watch over three minutes. Whilst its long hand counts the seconds, an electronic pulse can be heard. After half a minute the pulse slows, and so, it seems, does the long hand. This was an illusion of synchrony created in the mind: the rhythm of the stop watch was unaltered. Bruszewski was, in effect, conducting a visual experiment into ‘the ventriloquist effect’ – a phenomenon first investigated by research psychologists Ian Howard and W.B. Templeton in the 1960s – which demonstrated that when a viewer is presented with images and sounds which might possibly be construed as sharing the same source (like movement of the hand and the tick of Bruszewski’s stopwatch), they assume it must be so.[2] In other words, sounds seem to have the capacity to change our perception of images.

‘Time Structure’ and ‘Yyaa’ were self-consciously experimental films which examined human perception. The cameras and editing tools employed by Bruszewski were instruments with which a test could be made. But his works were not just quasi-scientific experiments: they were provocations too, designed to upset the humanist sensibilities which dominated Polish art (and elsewhere) in the 1970s. In 1975 he described his approach to making art as a matter of laying ‘Traps’:

WHAT EXISTS – exists outside me.

WHAT EXISTS is knowledge of what exists.

The knowledge exists from cultural pressure.


What I do in film, video or in the area of other techniques consists in nothing more than laying traps for WHAT EXISTS (1, 2).[3]

Bruszewski was particularly scathing of the existential, humanist currents flowing through Polish art. Writing in Warsztaty Formy Filmowej (August 1975), the group’s periodical, he attacked the ‘tendency of poetic involvement in art, or, defining another aspect: emotional and expressive: focused on the expression of an artist’s inner emotions, his ‘anxiety’; happily using any uncontrolled – and therefore ‘authentic’ – impulses as a means of expression (hence the favorite criterion of ‘truth’).’[4] Similarly art critics were equally blinded by their humanist mindset: They effectively replace knowledge with sensibility.) By contrast, Bruszewski and his Workshop of the Film Form allies saw themselves as being engaged in a rigorous examination of the film medium and the apparatus of human perception.

What then are we to make of the works which Bruszewski declared to be music in the late 1970s? What kind of conception of music did they offer? Or might the designation be one of his ‘traps’? In ‘TV Music’ (1979) Bruszewski added sensors to the surface of a conventional television. Each converted light into to sound played through a speaker. When the light intensity changed on the screen, the pitch of the note altered too. Three sensors produced something like a chord although the harmonic relations of these changing notes was changing and arbitrary. One way of interpreting ‘TV Music’ was to see the broadcast image – news reports and feature films – as a kind of score which is generating an indeterminate piece of music by chance, a long-standing preoccupation of experimental composers like John Cage.

The stochastic qualities of TV Music (and other ‘A Little Music’ works) mark a key difference with the dispassionate experiments like ‘Yyaa’ made in the early years of the Workshop of the Film Form. ‘TV Music’ restores a kind of synchrony which his first explorations into the sound-image gap had opened up. In a recording documenting ‘TV Music’, Bruszewski’s television plays a melodramatic period drama – perhaps set in the Middle Ages. A woman is abducted, her scream muffled by her assailant’s hand. Nevertheless, men nearby are alerted by the commotion and rush to her defence. A loud fight ensues, in which the attacker is thrown headfirst – in the Hollywood cliché – along a long table set with pewter dishes. Conventionally, synchronized effects like screams and fights like these are enhanced by foley and voice artists, who provide sounds which are added to the image in post-production. Music too is usually an after effect. They are added to heighten the emotional ‘depth’ of the film (or, as Altman put it, to allow the ‘production personnel to speak their sub-conscious mind’). Although direct sound recording brought a kind of gritty authenticity to film in the 1960s, romantic and horror movies still called on the foley artist’s skills long after. In ‘TV Music’ this symphony of illusions is switched off, literally: instead, Bruszewski’s sensors, fixed onto the screen with trailing wires and stimulated by light, deliver a new soundscape. This is a real time synthesis of sound and image.

Christian Wolff’s words from 1958 – much influenced by Cage’s thinking – might be used to describe Bruszewski’s ‘TV Music’:

What is, or seems to be, new in this music?…One finds a concern for a kind of objectivity, almost anonymity – sound come into its own. The ‘music’ is a resultant existing simply in the sounds we hear, given no impulse by expressions of self or personality. It is different in motive, originating in no psychology nor in dramatic intentions, nor in literary or pictorial purposes. For at least some of these composers, then, the final intention is to be free of artistry and taste. But this need not make their work ‘abstract,’ for nothing, in the end, is denied. It is simply that personal expression, drama, psychology, and the like are not part of the composer’s initial calculation: they are at best gratuitous. [5]

Wolff’s characterization shares much with the anti-literary ethos of the Workshop of the Film Form. Whether the group’s films, Bruszewski’s ‘A Little Music’ works, or in fact, any form of experimental music, could slough off expression, drama and psychology is, however, up to judgment. Much depends on the context of their making and reception – here ‘TV Music’s’ engagement with broadcasting and television is perhaps rather more important than its claims on music.

Bruszewski’s ‘A Little Music’ works might well be understood in terms of a longer history of artists adapting and modifying television. Cage’s former student and close associate Nam Jun Paik’s distortions of television broadcasts in the US in the 1960s using electromagnets to disturb the image are the most obvious precursors. As Norman Bauman observed in 1968:

Mr. Paik takes a huge horse-shoe magnet straining under its weight. He places it on top of the television set. The original image is completely destroyed and turned into unique electronic shapes. He turns on an electromagnet. Bzzzzz! The shapes dance. Here and there a disembodied hand is visible, a vestige of the original programme.

Paik’s artworks and his Paik/Abe video synthesizer (created with television technician Shuya Abe in 1969-71) were widely interpreted in the US in the 1970s not just a way of making trippy images though this was part of their appeal.[6] They were also taken as an invitation to interrupt the one-way flow of television from the corporation to the viewer. ‘In its present form,’ wrote Hans Magnus Enzensberger in 1970, ‘equipment like television or film does not serve communication but prevents it. It allows no reciprocal action between transmitter and receiver; technically speaking it reduces feedback to the lowest point compatible with the system.’[7] New portable video cameras like the Sony Portapak and cable television were imagined by the Counter Culture as a way of breaking the hold of the corporations on the airwaves and the means to produce ‘Guerilla TV’ or what Paik called ‘Participation TV’.[8]

Clearly circumstances in the Peoples Republic of Poland (PRL) were very different. Yet members of the Workshop of the Film Form – Bruszewski amongst them – took a keen interest in the operations of television and negotiated access to video technology owned by state media institutions.[9] In 1974 the Workshop of the Film Form was both the subject and the author of a programme broadcast on the second Polish channel, TVP2. In his contribution to the broadcast, ‘Spatial Transmission’, Bruszewski circled the studio on a bike within the field of vision of three cameras. One tracked his movement whilst the other two held fixed viewing points. Split screen, and featuring both Bruszewski and the camera monitors, the result is a looping image. ‘I wanted to make the film structure close to the chaotic, labyrinthine structure of life which we have to live whilst participating in the show called the world’ he said in a voice over which introduces the film. Although faint echoes of the Counter Culture’s avowal of participation and disdain for spectacular illusions can be heard in Bruszewski’s words, the democratization of TV in Poland in the 1970s was little more than a dream. Occupying a central place in Gierek’s modernization programme, TV was state property. Satellite communications and colour broadcasting (after 1971) and the affordability of TV sets did much to polish the image of state socialism.

Bruszewski, Gramophone, 1981

Bruszewski, Gramophone, 1981

Although Bruszewski and the other members of the Workshop of the Film Form had access to professional equipment and high quality film stock, most of his musical works are effectively ‘hacks’, adaptations and modifications of existing communication technologies. In 1981 Bruszewski created a remarkable device for the 9th Kraków Encounters exhibition, ‘The Gramophone’. This was Bruszewski’s own description, written some years later: ‘My GRAMOPHONE has 4 arms, 4 acoustic amplifiers and 4 loudspeakers. Each arm (each “needle”) plays independently of the remaining ones. If I remember correctly … my GRAMOPHONE played a record with the poetry by Norwid … Best results: Pablo Casals.’ In this way, the insistent linearity of Bach’s melodic lines and the romantic poet’s verses are disturbed by repetition and unpredictable forms of synchrony.

‘Sternmusic’ (1979) was another hack which turned an issue of the German news magazine into a score for a musical composition. This is Bruszewski’s own description: ‘Installation – a sound object using a specially made camera. The camera processes image into a stereo sound. Pointed at the magazine Der Stern, during the turning of the pages, it synchronously processes visual information of the subsequent pages into music.’[10] The turn of the page introduces a rhythmic effect as the wailing chords formed by the visual data on one spread, modulate under the influence of another. The ‘reader’ of the magazine is compelled to stand between two large loudspeakers fixed to the wall. In tone, the sound generated by this arrangement is unmistakably like a wailing alarm sounded at times of crisis.

Seemingly suspicious of the words which issue from the lips of actors and presenters on Polish TV or appear on the pages of a West German news weekly, it is hard not to see Bruszewski’s works as forms of media critique, even if they do not deliver explicit messages. And others made their point far more explicitly: fellow Workshop of the Film Form member Józef Robakowski was explicit when he wrote in 1976 ‘Video art is a form of opposition that discounts the use value of the institution (television): it is a creative movement uses its inherent independence to expose this mechanism and something that is used to control people’.[11] Robakowski’s later projects involving filming broadcasts on television such as ‘Homage to L. Brezhnev’ (Hommage dla L. Breżniewa, 1982-88) and ‘Moscow Broadcast’ (Transmisja z Moskwy, 1984) demonstrated his point. Others too held a critical perspective on TV. Opening with a shot of the First Secretary on a television screen in the empty hall of Warsaw’s Central Railway station, Krzysztof Kieślowski’s 1980 documentary film ‘Station’ (Dworzec), for instance, drew a connection between the propaganda function of television with the torpor of everyday life. Closed circuit security cameras survey the station’s passengers who, in turn, watch the hollow ‘propaganda of success’ on flickering, glitchy screens. Kieślowski’s Orwellian film makes a point about the darkest effects of the closed circuits of the PRL. Nevertheless, ‘TV Music’ and even ‘Sternmusic’ seem to anticipate a popular distrust of the media which gathered pace when Solidarity – the anti-communist Trade Union – formed in 1980 to hold Gierek’s programme to account. As the PRL stuttered to a halt, paralyzed by strikes and a stagnant economy, the official media distorted or simply ignored the events of the day. In response, Poles would pointedly take an early evening stroll when the main news broadcast appeared on TV to say ‘we are not listening.’

Using the same camera device which he had created to make ‘Sternmusic’ installation in 1979, Bruszewski turned the lens on himself in ‘Behaviour Music’ (1982). Standing before the camera and in a bright spotlight, the artist – wearing dark sunglasses and dressed in black – moved erratically, his movements triggering different sonic effects. In the video footage documenting the performance – made by the same acoustic camera instrument – the music sounds like numerous wailing sirens shifting pitch like an alert as Bruszewski twisted his body or moved his arms. Notwithstanding Bruszewski’s rejection of symbolism and expression, it is hard not to associate the sounds with the conditions of Martial Law which had been imposed by the state on the country when he made the piece. In the aftermath of the repression of the Solidarity Trade Union in December 1981, Police sirens were heard constantly in Poland. In this light, his gestures – turning away from the spotlight or moving his arms as if running – come to seem pathetic, perhaps unintentionally so. Here, the inescapable and tragic context of crisis forced drama, expression, drama and psychology into the work.

[1] Rick Altman, ‘Moving Lips. Cinema as Ventriloquism’ in Yale French Studies, no. 60, Cinema/Sound (1980) p. 67

[2] See ‪ David Melcher and Massimiliano Zampini, ‘The Sight and Sound of Music’ in Francesca Bacci, ‪David Melcher, eds., Art and the Senses (Oxford: OUP, 2011) p. 267

[3] Bruszewski cited in Janusz Zagrodski, Wojciech Bruszewski. Fenomeny percepcji (Łódź: Miejska Galeria Sztuki w Łodzi, 2010) p. 112

[4] Warsztaty Formy Filmowej, 7, (26 August 1975)

[5] Christian Wolff cited in Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (Cambridge: CUP, 1999) p. 30

[6] Nam June Paik. Videa ‘n Videology 1959–1973 (Emerson Museum of Art, Syracuse, New York, 1974) p. 55.

[7] H. M. Enzensberger, ‘Constituents of a Theory of the Media’ in New Left Review, 64 (November/December 1970) p. 15.

[8] Nam Jun Paik interviewed in Radical Software, vol. 1, n. 2 (1970) p. 25.

[9] Michael Shamberg/ Raindance Corporation, Guerrilla Television (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971).

[10] Bruszewski cited in Zagrodski, Wojciech Bruszewski. Fenomeny percepcji, p. 150.

[11] Robakowski cited by Ryszard Kluszczyński, ed., Warsztat Formy Filmowej (Warsaw: Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej Zamek Ujazdowski, 2000), p. 71.

Empty Plots – Art and Environment in Latvia in the 1970s

Architecture, Collage, Eastern Europe

This short essay was written for a publication accompanying the Visionary Structures exhibition at BOZAR, Brussels, opening in January 2015.

In the early 1970s Environment occupied a central place in the lexicon of art and design on both sides of the Cold War divide. It was not, of course, a newly-coined term: more than a decade earlier American artist Allan Kaprow had described the settings of his early happenings as ‘environments’, spaces which entangled spectators in multi-sensory experiences.[1] Kaprow and many others in the years which followed made works of art into which the visitor could step. Happenings, installations, Supergraphics, artistic interventions into the ordinary fabric of the city or the countryside, temporary architectural structures and monuments all came to be described as ‘environments’ (often using the English term[2]).

Although not new, the term seemed to gain a special hold on the imagination when electronic communications technology and new sciences like cybernetics augured new kinds of responsive environments. At the same time, these high-tech utopias were shadowed by growing anxieties about humanity’s negative effects on the natural world. This is certainly the case in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc where artists creating ‘environments’ also faced a second constraint, namely that of the Party-State’s control over space. Despite trumpeting the collective ownership of all resources including space itself, state-censorship, surveillance and a paranoid approach to any form of unlicensed social gathering meant that the creation of works of art which formed environments – in the sense suggested by Kaprow – always risked official condemnation. In fact, the countryside became a particularly attractive setting in which to create temporary experimental environments in in the early 1970s because – in part – it offered some degree of escape from control and surveillance.

Andris Grīnbergs’ ‘The Wedding of Jesus Christ’, 1972

Andris Grīnbergs’ ‘The Wedding of Jesus Christ’, 1972

Key escapes of this kind include Andris Grīnbergs’ ‘The Wedding of Jesus Christ’, a two-day happening during which he married his partner Inta Jaunzeme in the Latvian countryside in 1972, as well as the better known activities of the Collective Actions group, cofounded by Andrei Monastyrsky in Moscow in 1976. Their ‘Journeys to the Countryside’ followed a general pattern: twenty or thirty participants would be invited by telephone to leave the city by an appointed train. On arrival, they would walk to remote field to be presented with a modest intervention into the landscape. In Appearance (1976), the first of these actions, the group were met by two men who distributed plain cards with the following inscription, ‘Documentary confirmation that _____ was a witness of Appearance which occurred on 13th March 1976’.[3] As artist Jānis Borgs recalls, one of the reasons ‘why there was no street art’ in the Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic until the late 1980s was because of the obdurate grip of censorship, at least until the Kremlin declared the policy of Glasnost (Openness).[4]

Jānis Osis design for the Celebrations exhibition, Riga, 1972 (LCCA archive)

Jānis Osis design for the Celebrations exhibition, Riga, 1972 (LCCA archive)

Early explorations of the idea of environment in Latvian art include a 1972 exhibition entitled ‘Celebrations’ held in the exhibition hall of the Institute of Scientific Technical Information and Propaganda in Riga. This event belongs to the longer and, as yet, unwritten history of scientific institutions forming welcoming environments for experimental art in the Soviet Union. In these settings, groups like Dvizhenie in Moscow and Prometei in Kazan synthesised art and technology to produce immersive, kinetic and abstract art works. In this way, forms of modernism which were prohibited by official art institutions thrived. In 1972 the elegant interiors of the historic Stock Exchange in Riga were filled with a framework of small interconnected bays conceived by Jānis Osis. Artworks by a new generation of modernist artists interested in testing orthodoxy illuminated these bays with light or sound or flooded brightly coloured stripes around their corners. There was little distinction between the art and its setting. In one section, the floor seemed to move and pulse under foot – here was a artwork which suggested interaction. ‘Celebrations’ was evidence that new forms of contemporary art like Op and Kinetic Art could be accommodated in an official exhibition which had been organized to serve a propaganda function (its title inferring the celebration of the formation of the Soviet Union fifty years earlier). But much depended on the strategic designation of the work: this section of the ‘Celebrations’ exhibition was categorized as ‘Interior Design’, a label which afforded artists greater intellectual and formal freedom than the conventional categories of art. An imprecise label like ‘artistic construction’ suggested usefulness, even if the nature of that utility was hardly evident to visitors in the gallery.

Valdis Celms, Anda Ārgale and Māris Ārgalis, design for multimedia 'Lighthouse', 1978

Valdis Celms, Anda Ārgale and Māris Ārgalis, design for multimedia ‘Lighthouse’, 1978

Kinetic art formed a contact zone for ambitious art, architecture and design in Latvia. In 1978 designer Valdis Celms, architect Anda Ārgale and artist Māris Ārgalis, proposed that a ‘Lighthouse’ be constructed on the AB Dam on the Daugava river creating a new landmark for the capital in an otherwise anonymous section of the city. A ‘Centre for the Audiovisual Arts’, the tower was to feature a programmable, rotating video screen on which live events and propaganda could be broadcast across the city. Undeniably future-oriented (and exceeding the limits of Soviet technology at the time), the scheme was, at the same time, indebted to the propaganda stands and kiosks equipped with light panels and loudspeakers conceived by Gustavs Klucis in Lenin’s Russia. Never seriously considered by the authorities, this was nevertheless, an important project for the artists, one on which Celms worked for a number of years. In 1983 he completed a three-dimensional model of the lighthouse.

Jānis Borgs, 1978 (LCCA Archive)

Jānis Borgs, 1978 (LCCA Archive)

The Lighthouse was first presented in ‘For One’s Own City’, a 1978 show which was organized in St. Peter’s Church in the centre of Riga to combine the creativity of artists and architects. Under the auspices of this exhibition, artist Jānis Borgs proposed departing the gallery by installing a clock on an empty plot in the city. His design was also indebted to Klucis’ ‘Dynamic City’, a montage from 1920 which combined a series of dynamic geometric forms with photographs of Lenin and pylon laid over a circular form suggesting the globe. Combining dynamic abstract geometry with Bolshevik symbols, Klucis’ image was a demand for world revolution. More than half a century later Borgs’ clock – reviving the aesthetics of the Soviet avant-garde – was to be a kinetic object set against a painted Suprematist supergraphic on the blind ends of the plot. In the Soviet Union where abstract art was still under prohibition, the avant-garde of the 1920s was yet to be rehabilitated. Only splinters of the history of the avant-garde were available to its citizens, and sometimes only then on the pages of magazines and books from the more liberal of the ‘fraternal’ nations of the Eastern Bloc like Poland. The wholesale rediscovery of the Latvian avant-garde of the 1920s was yet to happen.

Moreover, the utopianism of this design lay in its unlikelihood of being realized in the stagnant conditions of the Soviet Union under General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev (this is what Theodor Adorno once called ‘negative utopianism’[5]). As such it might be considered an early form of what later became known as ‘Paper Architecture’ – a practice found across the Bloc but most strongly associated with young architects in Eastern Europe under communist rule who used visionary schemes as political commentary in the 1970s and 1980s.[6] Artists and architects associated with the Tallinn School, for instance, produced an exceptional body of paper architectural schemes through the course of the 1970s which often used the vocabularies of Constructivism and Suprematism somewhat ironically: Leonhard Lapin designed, for instance, an ‘Anti-International Monument. Tower (Stable) for Artist Valdur Ohakas’ Donkey’ in 1974, alluding perhaps to the primitive techniques employed in the construction of the first Soviet monuments – another form of Potemkin architecture.[7] Just over a decade later Hungarian artist Gabor Bachman and architect László Rajk, with dissident writers György Konrád and Miklós Haraszti designed a visionary ‘Strikers House’ (1985) as a monument to the repressed Solidarity Trade Union in Poland in the Constructivist style. Both Lapin’s project and the Hungarian scheme were laced with irony. By contrast the Latvian engagement with the Soviet avant-garde still seems to possess a genuine desire for utopia.

Pollutionists montage, late 1970s.

Pollutionists montage, late 1970s.

Ārgalis, Borgs and Celms – along with Kirils Šmeļkovs, Kārlis Kalsers and others – were also members of the Pollucionistu (the Pollutionists) group which in the late 1970s created a remarkable and extensive body of images which commented on the failures of late Soviet system to meet not just its promises of utopia but also its loud claims on beauty and utility. Walking through Riga, the Pollucionistu photographed new panel-construction estates and nineteenth century housing; side streets and back alleys; as well as the slow progress of repairs to the city’s streets. Their interests were neither in the historic landmarks of the city nor the ostentatious monuments to Soviet order which formed the conventional points on an official guided tour. Instead, it was the slow unmanaged entropy of the Soviet environment which drew their cameras.

Pollutionists montage prepared for Literatura un Māksla, late 1970s.

Pollutionists montage prepared for Literatura un Māksla, late 1970s.

The group would bring their images to informal discussions in private apartments, often animated by Ārgalis’s penetrating reading of art theory and history. Celms and Borgs reworked these black and white images as montages or drew on their surfaces in the manner of Dada works. Often absurd, their images had limited circulation as grainy illustrations in Literatura un Māksla, a weekly paper issued by the artistic and literary unions in Latvia. Gentle humour eased the passage of these images through the censor’s office: nevertheless, viewed together, the images created by the Pollucionistu constitute a sharp critique of Soviet management of the urban environment. By the early 1980s, the activities of the group drew the attention of the KGB and, facing dark insinuations and intimation, dissolved itself.

It is remarkable that Borg and Celms could be making montage works that self-consciously aspired to the irreverent qualities of Dada and yet at the same time were proposing utopian schemes like the Brīvības Street clock or the Lighthouse Audiovisual Centre. This was not, however, a matter of ‘Double Think’: both orders of image were hinged by a desire to radically improve the environment. Not anti-Soviet or explicitly political, they nurtured a desire for an alternative to that which was offered by Soviet reality. The late 1970s also marked the high-water mark of techno-utopianism in the Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic just as the tide turned to a new aesthetic which drew attention to entropy and stagnancy (one of the themes which the Pollucionistu recorded).

Andris Breže (with Andra Neibuerga and Valdis Ošiņš)  ‘Journey to the Countryside’, 1984

Andris Breže (with Andra Neibuerga and Valdis Ošiņš) ‘Journey to the Countryside’, 1984

A landmark exhibition, ‘Nature. Environment. Man’ planned by artist Ojārs Ābols but mounted after his death in St Peter’s Church in Riga in spring 1984 featured artworks not only by modernists like Celms but also those of a new generation of artists who addressed environment in very different terms: Indulis Gailāns’ ‘Fence Action’ was, for instance, a timber, whitewashed fence to which enigmatic messages scrawled on paper were nailed whilst Andris Breže (with Andra Neibuerga and Valdis Ošiņš) installed a putrefying Moskvich 401 car in which ghostly plaster figures were taking a ‘Journey to the Countryside’.[8] Grass grew under its bonnet. In a new-found orientation to the past and to the countryside, these works anticipate the politics of ecology, memory and national revival which were to shape Latvian intellectual life in the late 1980s.

Indulis Gailāns’ ‘Fence Action’ , Riga, 1984

Indulis Gailāns’ ‘Fence Action’ , Riga, 1984

The ecclesiological setting, as well the new-found interest in the entropy, brought ‘Nature. Environment. Man’ close to a series of exhibitions and happenings organized in Warsaw in 1983 and 1984. When artists in Poland boycotted official institutions in protest at the repression of Solidarity Trade Union, the Catholic Church provided alternative public spaces for dissenting culture. One particularly important space during the mid 1980s was a disused and ruined church on Żytnia Street which hosted a number of theatrical performances by banned avant-garde companies like Teatr Ósmego Dnia (Theatre of the Eighth Day) and works by prominent artists like Jerzy Kalina and Jerzy Bereś in group exhibitions with titles like ‘Znak krzyża’ (The Meaning of the Cross, June 1983) and the more open-ended ‘Obecność’ (Presence, June 1984). Whilst the Catholic church in Poland enjoyed an exceptional degree of autonomy and Ā, the sacred and historic setting served a new generation of artists interested in the subjective qualities and often suppressed conditions of memory. This also drew Latvian art closer – in approach – to the post-modern sensibilities which were shaping art practice around the world. History – so long the primary theme of most official art in the Soviet Union – was being rescaled to the dimensions of the family, the church and the home.

[1] Allan Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, ed. Jeff Kelley (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003).

[2] See for instance Aleksander Wojciechowski, ‘Environment w sztuce Polskiej’ in Projekt (March 1976) pp. 17-32.

[3] See Matthew Jesse Jackson, The Experimental Group: Ilya Kabakov, Moscow Conceptualism, Soviet avant-gardes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010) pp. 134-5.

[4] Borgs interviewed by Ieva Astahovska in Helena Demakova, The Self. Personal Journeys in to Contemporary Art: 1960s-80s in Soviet Latvia (Riga: Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Latvia, 2011), p. 67.

[5] Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (London: Routledge, 2004) p. 176

[6] See Deutsches Architektur Museum, Paper Architecture. New Projects from the Soviet Union (New York: Rizzoli, 1990); Alexey Yurasovsky, Post-Soviet Art and Architecture (London: Academy Editions, 1994).

[7] See Kurg and Laanemets’ essays in Keskkonnad, projektid, kontseptsioonid Tallinna kooli arhitektid 1972-1985 (Environment, projects, concepts. Architects of the Tallinn School 1972-1985) (Tallinn, 2008).

[8] Daba. Vide. Cilveks 1984-2004 (Riga: LMS, 2004)

Echo Translation

Cinema, Eastern Europe, Music

In his book La voix au cinéma (The Voice in Cinema), Michel Chion coined the word ‘acousmêtre’ to describe a character that can be heard but not seen on screen. Rather than nail down his term with a comprehensive definition, Chion introduces his readers to various kinds of disembodied voices in the cinema. They include the ‘complete acousmêtre, the one who is not-yet seen, but who remains liable to appear in the visual field at any Moment’; the ‘already visualized acousmêtre’ – like a character who becomes a temporary narrator to explain an on-screen flashback; and, perhaps its most familiar kind, the ‘commentator-acousmêtre’, the disengaged speaker who provides a voice over, ‘but never shows himself [and] who has no personal stake in the image.’[1] The acousmêtre seems to derive special powers by eschewing visibility: these are ‘the ability to be everywhere, to see all, to know all, and to have complete power. In other words: ubiquity, panopticism, omniscience, and omnipotence.’[2] When acousmêtre acquires a body, it seems to lose authority, even if – as in the case of the Wizard of Oz in the 1939 Hollywood movie – this power was never more than a matter of faith of others.

Disembodied, the acousmêtre cannot occupy a clearly demarcated place. Chion writes that it ‘must, even if only slightly, have one foot in the image, in the space of the film; he must haunt the borderlands that are neither the interior of the filmic stage nor the proscenium,’ thereby bringing about ‘disequilibrium and tension.’ Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ (1960) provides Chion with numerous examples of how the uncanny, haunting qualities of the acousmêtre can be summoned to produce dramatic effects. Norman Bates’ mother is foremost an off-screen voice, whilst her body is little more than a evanescent shadow flickering in and out of sight. When, at the end of the movie, and after a police psychiatrist has diagnosed Bates’ condition, we see Norman sitting in a holding cell, it is his invisible mother who speaks. ‘When we hear the voice over Norman’s face,’ writes Chion, ‘his mouth is closed, as if to suggest possession by spirits or ventriloquism.’[3] This, according to Chion, is the ‘triumph of the acousmêtre’.

Audiences watching Hitchcock’s film in the People’s Republic of Poland, when it was first screened on television there in 1980, heard a second, unique acousmatic voice, that of a translator. A single voice delivered the words of all the characters on screen. Both the actors and translator were audible, although the Polish voice was louder and followed a second or less later. The acousmatic voice of Norman’s mother which seemed to have buried itself in his body was now, almost certainly, voiced by a man. Hitchcock’s trashy Freudianism was undone by this act of gender reassignment.

Audiences in the Poland – like those in the People’s Republic of Bulgaria and the Soviet Union (where ‘Psycho’ was not shown) – were developing viewing habits which still shape the ways in which people like to watch foreign films and broadcasts today. The practices of subtitling and synchronised dubbing by using a cast of voice actors which dominate film translation elsewhere in the world were too costly. Instead, a single – or sometimes multiple – voice over translation was imposed over the original soundtrack of imported films and other foreign footage. In Russia this technique is known by various names including ‘perevod Gavrilova’ (‘Gavrilov Translation’ after one of the technique’s practitioners). The Poles call the voice over translator a Szeptanka (‘Whisperer’) or a Lektor Filmowy (‘Film Reader’).

Preferred by television broadcasters, voice over translation is largely scripted, recorded and added in post-production today but its origins in Eastern Europe can be traced to live acts of translation in the cinema, first of ‘trophy films’ which had been looted from Germany at the end of the Second World War (including prints of movies by the Allies) and, then, of a handful of imported films were which were shown under license in the Eastern Bloc from the late 1950s on. The appearance of films made in the West might be taken as a sign of the political ‘Thaw’, particularly in relatively liberal Poland – the Film Repertoire Council [Filmowa Rada Repertuarowa] established there in 1957 set out to achieve a tactical even balance of films from the two Cold War blocs.[4] Nevertheless, Soviet film censors remained wary of the influence of Western films on local audiences, cutting politically ‘incorrect’ scenes and censoring images of drug use and sexuality.

In the Soviet Union occasional film festivals and a few specialist cinemas were rare places were audiences could see international films which had not been approved for wide distribution. The Illusion cinema – which opened in Moscow in 1966 – was one such place. It was the official theatre of Gosfilmofond, the State Film Archive, and a key venue for the Moscow International Film Festival. Early screenings there included ‘Gone with the Wind’ (1939), the Japanese art house classic ‘The Naked Island‘ (1960) directed by Kaneto Shindō, and the 1963 Oscar-winning Italian comedy ‘Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’ starring Sophia Loren. To support its international programme, the Illusion cinema trained and employed a cadre of professional translators who operated from a special booth equipped with microphones and headphones, as well as lecturers who introduced the repertoire to the public. And when prints were sent to film festivals in the Soviet republics they would often be accompanied by a professional translator from the Illusion cinema.

Translation and and interpretation were exercises in ideological alignment. Just as sexual scenes might be cut by the censors, vulgarity and slang would be suppressed by the translator at the microphone. The translators did not necessarily need to speak the original language of the film: often they would translate from the English, French or German subtitles which accompanied an imported title. Occasionally a foreign film would arrive without subtitles or any other kind of textual aids and so the translator would make a stab at interpretation. The spontaneous and even improvisational aspect of translation was, however, muted by repetition – a translator might relay the same film many times in a day and, in the case of the most popular films like ‘Casablanca’ (1942), many hundreds of times in a career. Nevertheless, the Illusion’s translators saw themselves as performers of a particular genre of live performance. Irina Razlogova has interviewed a number of them. One, Grigory Libergal who worked at the Moscow cinema from its opening until the 1980s, recalled: ‘When you are watching a film with a simultaneous translation, you, the viewer, have to clearly hear the original soundtrack of the film. If the translator is a master of his craft, he will not “dominate” the screen, speak on top of the actors. If he is a virtuoso, if he can feel the balance between the film proper and his own voice, after several minutes the spectator in the theater will forget about the translator, feeling that he himself can understand English, French, or Japanese.’[5]

Whilst Razlogova’s interviewees emphasise character and even artistry as valuable qualities, the ideal, as Libergal stresses, was for the translator to be ‘out of mind’. Henryk Pijanowski, a veteran ‘lektor’ in Poland, suggests that the words should disappear too: ‘Mastery of film translation is when the lektor strives to read so that the listener does not hear a thing’.[6] According to this doxa, the lektor’s voice seeks to bury itself in the mind of the listener, to become like thought. All on-screen words – whether titles, close ups of text, dialogue, voice over narration, or on-screen addresses to the viewer – are his. Moreover, they are unified by tone, colour and timbre. Intonation is to be steady and consistent, even when the original on-screen dialogue is delivered at a high emotional pitch; fast paced exchanges are compressed by judicious editing by the lektor; and those points where speech breaks down – like screams and moans – are left alone, as is singing (though lyrics are often relayed in monotone). This professional voice is never embarrassed by what appears on screen, or doubts the action. Nor does it listen to itself.

A World in Your Ear

Voice over translation would seem to be akin to the better known and more widespread practice of dubbing or what is sometimes called ‘voice replacement’. But the practices differ in crucial ways. In dubbing, for instance, the aim of the vocal actor is to present the illusion of synchronized speech by overlaying his or her voice over that of another. Gender and age should match, as should the sound with the movement of lips (at least in countries like Germany where the imperative to sync sound with image overrides the requirement of fidelity to the script[7]). By contrast, a lektor uses delay to distinguish his voice from those of the actors on screen: his words follow theirs.

The popularity of voice over translation in Poland may well be a product of the the poor reputation of dubbing, particularly in the 1950s when it was still the dominant way of translating foreign films. In 1955 Film magazine gathered the opinions of Polish viewers of René Clair’s ‘Les Belles De Nuit’ (Beauties of the Night, France, 1952) and Slátan Dudow’s ‘Stärker als die Nacht’ (Stronger than the Night, East Germany, 1954): ‘The dubbing in “Stronger than the Night”,’ according to one, ‘was primitive, and completely embarrasses the filmmakers with errors and awkwardness. The actors on the screen open their mouths, and there is silence. This lasts for a while until we hear a Polish voice … the same effect is also found in the scene depicting a clandestine meeting by the river when the mouths of those gathered is met by annoying silence on the screen – like a silent film.’[8] Even when the dubbing was well-synchronised, other cavils were raised. ‘I cannot accept the convention that the Frenchman on screen speaks Polish. This is something unnatural …’ remarked one viewer of the Clair film.[9] Unnaturalness is a familiar complaint in the history of sound dubbing (Antonin Artaud characterised dubbing as a form of possession and Jorge Luis Borges said that it produces monsters[10]). But the erasure of foreignness might well have been unwelcome too. Unlike dubbing (but like subtitling), voice over translation allows for foreign words and accents to be audible, and, as such, for difference to persist. During the Cold War, the gap between the original voice and its translation was also the gap between East and West or, for that matter, between East and East. In hearing Gérard Philipe or Gina Lollobrigida’s voices in ‘Les Belles De Nuit’, audiences were able to enjoy a little of the internationalism which the Soviet Bloc proclaimed so loudly in its propaganda but denied its citizens in life. Whether this was a wish for solidarity with working classes around the world or a desire to satisfy what Czesław Miłosz once called the ‘hunger for strangeness’ in the grey world of state socialism is hard to know.[11]

Another difference between dubbing and voice over narration is the fact that the lektor assumes responsibility for delivering all words heard or seen on screen. To contain this proliferating polyphony, the ‘best’ voice over is transparent, unobtrusive, lacking corporality. This tendency was amplified when voice over translation was imported into the expanding field of television broadcasting in Eastern Europe in the 1970s. Post-sync recording means that the infelicities of live translation are ironed out. Close-micing, producing a very ‘dry’ sound with little reverberation, erases all traces the space of the studio. Offering clear definition, close-micing also lifts the voice out of the space of the film. So close, this voice seems to be inside the ear. It is always there, always on, even, it seems, when the lektor is not speaking.

Almost always male, transmitted over the airwaves, and having the capacity to speak for all and to translate every language, the voice of lektor might seem to have the powers that Chion ascribes to the acousmêtre. But, unlike the narrator of movies, newsreels or documentaries, the lektor does not provide expert explanations of events, or insight into the inner thoughts of the characters on screen. He has no capacity for reflection or hindsight. His is, seemingly, an automatic voice, only triggered by the words of others. Rather than being the voice of God, the lektor is a servant of the speaker. His humble status is perhaps revealed by the ‘first’ voice over translator in the Soviet world, Ivan Bolshakov, chairman of the Committee on Cinematography of the USSR. In the 1940s Bolshakov would arrange daily private screenings for the generalissimo in his private cinema. These were both moments of private entertainment and, at the same time, a meeting of the most important film censorship board in the USSR.[12] Stalin’s displeasure would mean that a film would not be acquired for distribution. According to eyewitnesses, he was a particularly active viewer, delivering a running report of the ideological merits and failings of each film – a dictator’s commentary. He had a taste for cowboy movies as well as the films of Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable but according to Nikita Khrushchev, would also ‘curse them, giving them an ideological evaluation.’[13] A canny retainer, Bolshakov would usually arrange for a choice of films to be available at each screening to improve Stalin’s mood. This introduced a new problem – the prints of the films were not subtitled and so Bolshakov had to be ready to give his mercurial master an extempore translation of the dialogue on the spot. Speaking only faltering English, Bolshakov would prepare by spending hours with interpreters learning the story and lines. Even then, he struggled to keep up with the plot and dialogue of the many films he’d put at Stalin’s command. Stalin apparently enjoyed the deep discomfort felt by his subaltern. Such anecdotes are often relayed by Stalin’s biographers to illustrate his volatile and malevolent character: nevertheless, Bolshakov was a wily operator, successfully extending his role to become the first Minister of Cinematography in 1946.

Abusive Translations

Like many things in Eastern Europe, voice over translation may have originated at the command of authority but it eluded the control of the state. In the 1980s unlicensed copies of western films began to be made on video cassettes and traded (their illegal origins often confirmed by the legend ‘For Preview Purposes Only’ across the screen). These were accompanied by voice over translations provided by amateurs, many of whom were academics or professional translators who had benefited from language training. Leonid Veniaminovich Volodarskii recalls the process:

Everything was done using two VCRs, sitting on your knees, basically. One of them had to be stereo. You stuck the original [VHS cassette] into one VCR, a blank VHS cassette into the other VCR, and a mic into this other VCR, too. I translated simultaneously, and my voice was recorded by the second VCR. Then some techie – I’m strictly not technicallyminded – made a master tape of my voiceover. From that point on, it was ‘Full speed ahead!’ – multiple copies were made, and the voiceover hit the popular masses.[14]

Often idiosyncratic, these translations departed from the script in ways that appeal to both their viewers and to scholars of translation. One, Alexander Burak, stresses the fact that such translations were made without a great deal of preparation: often long passages of slang or idiomatic phrases would elude the translator and so he would have to improvise (an unintended echo of Bolshakov’s performances for Stalin).[15] Even skilled translators might well enhance the original with local colloquialisms and vivid profanities in an effort to capture what they believed to be the colour of the original. The creative translator of Martin Scorsese’s ‘Mean Streets’ (1973) replaced New York’s street slang with that of Warsaw’s Praga district in a pirate version on sale in Poland in early 1990s. Widely acclaimed as the master of the genre in Russia, Dmitry Puckhov (aka Goblin), who acquired his English in the 1980s on a two-year course at the Dzerzhinsky Police House of Culture and by translating rock lyrics at home, achieved success and some degree of notoriety for his voice over translations which far exceed the principle of fidelity. In rescripting imported thrillers and crime films such as ‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994), Puckhov incorporated the full force of Russian expletives as well as an urgent, highly distinctive tone of voice. These devices, he claims, capture the gritty qualities of the original films far more effectively than pious, literary-minded culture approach to translation promoted by the film studios.[16] His reputation, however, owes more to to his comic voice over translations of the first two ‘Lord of the Rings’ films made in the early 2000s which relocate Middle-earth to contemporary Russia. The principal characters were given comic Russified names:[17] Frodo Baggins became Fedor Mikhailovich Sumkin (a derivative of the Russian word sumka, or bag); the Ranger, Aragorn, was renamed Agronom (farm worker); Legolas became Logovaz, after the Russian car company responsible for Ladas. Puckhov also introduced new elements into the soundscape: courtly dancing at Bilbo Baggins’ birthday party, for instance, is accompanied by a well-known techno track by Ruki Vverh! (Hands Up!). Woven through the voice over narration are what remain topical themes relating to the rampant advance of capitalism in the country. The search story becomes something like a crime drama set in the Russian underworld. The tone is set from the outset when the main character, just returned to Middle-earth after years of wandering, announces: ‘The world is not much changed – people steal as before. MacDonald’s have cropped up everywhere – it is funny I don’t see them here.’ In effect, Puckhov’s versions of ‘Lord of the Rings’ are social satires which function as what Abé Mark Nornes calls ‘abusive translations’ – acts of rescripting which ‘tamper with language usage and freely ignore or change much of the source text’. What Nornes calls ‘abuse’ has the positive value when it ‘helps inject a palpable sense of the foreign.’[18] Freely available for download, Russian viewers would play Puckhov’s translations over imported films. As Vlad Strukov notes, ‘the sound of the original Hollywood movie becomes secondary as the movie is now meant to accompany the “translation” and not the other way around, as one would expect’.[19]

Deeply engrained listening habits mean that voice over translation continues to be the way in which Poles and Russians prefer to watch broadcasts of foreign material (though subtitling is on the rise in cinemas). As K.I. Donnelly notes, ‘it is conventional and thus naturalistic in its own way.’[20] But the attachment to the phenomenon runs deeper than that. In Poland and Russia today, considerable nostalgia attaches to the early translators of these black market releases (and in marked contradistinction to the characterization of voice over narration by Polish film critics in the early 1990s as an unwelcome hangover from the Soviet Bloc). The extent of the audiences for these illegally-traded copies was so great that their voices are still well known, instantly and comfortingly familiar.[21] Figures who would once needed to mask their activities with anonymity have become minor celebrities. Of Władysław Frączak, for instance, one on-line fan in Poland wrote in 2011 ‘This lektor stood out when I watched my first American film on VHS – ‘Mask’ with Jim Carrey. I can listen to him even when the film is hopeless’.[22] This listener was drawn to Frączak’s idiolect. That the voice over technique is known in Russia by the name of one of its chief practitioners, Andrei Gavrilov who began his work in the 1980s moonlighting from his work as a journalist in the European section of TASS news agency is itself evidence of recognition. Many now work in the mainstream media today. In recent years, the best-known in Russia, Puckhov, has developed a career as an on-line political commentator. (His ‘Goblin News’ sometimes accompanied, by a neat table-turn, with English subtitles). Increasingly visible and often valued for the vocal idiosyncrasies that they brought to the act of translation, these once-acousmatic voices have now acquired names and visibility.

Being visible and credited as the owner of a voice is a benefit of post-communism: it chimes with the principles of the freedom of speech, accountability and ownership which have been claimed as rights by opponents of the Soviet Bloc. Bylines are an aspect of professionalization too. Others include the representation by agents and the construction of commercial ‘voice banks’. Lektors in Poland now ply their trade as ‘voice over artists’ for advertising and radio. And when they provide voice over translations, they usually read scripts translated by others. Professional codes and standards – like those articulated by Libergal and Pijanowski above – have been set down. Expansion of the profession has also provided opportunities for a small number of women. But what, one might wonder, has been lost in these developments? Chion – the chief celebrant of the voice in the cinema – calls the process by which the acousmêtre acquires a body ‘de-acousmatization’. ‘Embodying the voice,’ he writes of fantasy, thriller, and gangster movies which feature powerful shadowy kingpins, ‘is a sort of symbolic act, dooming the acousmêtre to the fate of ordinary mortals. De-acousmatization roots the acousmêtre to a place and says, “here is your body, you’ll be there, and not elsewhere”.’[23] Brought down to earth, the acousmêtre is deprived of its off-screen panopticism and omnipotence. The voice of the Lektor in Eastern Europe has however never occupied this all-knowing, all-seeing realm. Instead, it spoke from the shadows, always echoing another, more authoritative voice. The gap between these two voices was the space in which sometimes fretful, occasionally improvised, and, at times, ‘abusive’ translations could be heard.

[1] Michel Chion, The Voice in Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999) 21. Translated by Claudia Gorbman.

[2] Ibid, 24.

[3] Ibid, 149.

[4] Marek Haltoff, Polish National Cinema (Oxford & New York: Berghahn, 2002), 78.

[5] Grigory Libergal cited by Elena Razlogova in ‘Listening to the Inaudible Foreign. Simultaneous Translators and Soviet Experience of Foreign Cinema’ in ‪Lilya Kaganovsky, ‪Masha Salazkina, eds., Sound, Speech, Music in Soviet and Post-Soviet Cinema (Bloomington, IN: ‪Indiana University Press, ‪2014) 169. Razlogova’s translation.

[6] Henryk Pijanowski interviewed in ‘Zawód Lektor (Lektorzy Magia Polskiego Głosu)’, a television programme made by Michał Jeczeń for TVP1, 2006.

[7] On national differences in the approach to dubbing see K. I. Donnelly, Occult Aesthetics. Synchronization in Sound Film (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[8] Cited in Czesław Michałski, ‘O dubbing dobrze i źle’ in Film, 50 (1955) 3.

[9] Ibid.

[10] See Michal Yampolsky. ‘Voice Devoured: Artaud and Borges on Dubbing’ in October, 64 (Spring 1993) 57-77.

[11] Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980) 69.

[12] See Grigory Mariamov, 
Kremlevskii tsenzor. Stalin smotrit kino (The Kremlin Censor. Stalin Watches the Cinema (Moscow: Kinotsentr, 1992).

[13] Memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev: Volume 2: Reformer, 1945-1964, edited by Sergei Khrushchev (Philadelphia, PA: Penn State University Press, 2006) 115.

[14] Volodarskii cited by Alexander Burak, ‘Some Like it Hot – Goblin‐Style: “Ozhivliazh” in Russian Film Translations’ in Russian Language Journal, v. 61 (2011) 7. Burak’s translation.

[15] Ibid.

[16] See Carl Shreck, ‘Goblin Makes the Case against Demonizing Expletives’ in St. Petersburg Times (29 July 2003) 1-2.

[17] Natalia Rulyova, ‘Piracy and Narrative Games: Dmitry Puchkov’s Translations of “The Lord of the Rings”’ in The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 49, no. 4 (Winter 2005), pp. 625-638.

[18] Abé Mark Nornes, Cinema Babel. Translating Global Cinema (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1997) 179.

[19] Vlad Strukov, ‘Translated by Goblin: Global Challenge and Local Response in Brian James Baer, John Benjamin, eds., ‘Post-Soviet Translations of Hollywood Films’ in Contexts, Subtexts and Pretexts: Literary Translation in Eastern Europe and Russia (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing, 2011) 242.

[20] Donnelly, op cit., 178.

[21] When Lucjan Szołajski died in Warsaw in June 2013, numerous obituaries recorded the fact that he had provided voice over translation for more than 20,000 films and television series over forty years.

[22] -accessed July 2014.

[23] Chion, op cit., 27-8.

Nervous Systems: New Machines and Bodies in Polish Art and Film after the Thaw

Cold War, Design as Critique, Eastern Europe, New Media, Uncategorized

This essay was published in the catalogue accompanying the Cosmos Calling! exhibition at Zacheta, Warsaw, summer 2014.



Iluminacja, photo: Jerzy Troszczyński, 1973, Filmoteka Narodowa

Iluminacja, photo: Jerzy Troszczyński, 1973, Filmoteka Narodowa

In 1973 Krzysztof Zanussi made a movie, ‘Iluminacja’(Illumination), to explore the ways in which science, the state and religion understood life in its most immediate sense, that of the living human being. Relaying the fictional career of Franciszek Retman, a young physicist in the People’s Republic of Poland (PRL), over the course of the 1960s, Zanussi’s film is a brilliant collage of documentary material, interviews with living scientists and the venerable philosopher, Władysław Tartarkiewicz, as well as a narrative about the life of Retman and his young family. This arcs from a position of certainty in 1961 when, newly matriculated, Retman announces his desire to commit to physics because of its ‘concrete knowledge’, to one of existential anxiety after the failure to cure his unnamed malady, a life-threatening condition which seems to be triggered by his high ambitions.

Zanussi’s film is a lofty philosophical enquiry, but it also has political overtones too. When, for instance, Retman is forced to give up his studies to meet the costs of raising his young family, he takes employment testing the cathode ray tubes in a factory making televisions: high expertise is put to the mundane needs of society. Another way of making a living includes volunteering for scientific tests. Retman is paid to sleep whilst wired to an electroencephalograph recording his brain activity in angular lines on a plotter. His dreams appear to have greater value than his thoughts. At the same time, various professional voices in the film hypothesize about the new frontiers of genetics, molecular biology and neuroscience. Here, the human brain is presented as new challenge to the technical and ethical limits of science. In fact, one section uses footage of open-brain surgery during which the neurosurgeon manipulates the brain of patient lying alert on the operating table. Pressure applied with a probe on the glomerulus region triggers the strong impression of smell in the patient. Smell, it seems, is not a phenomenon in the world but a product of electrical impulses in the brain.

Zanussi, it becomes clear, is preoccupied with the nature of consciousness. He is not alone in this: on screen, Iwo Bialynicki-Birula, a professor of theoretical physics at Warsaw University, reflects:


The passing of time in our minds can be equated to moving lighting. The present and the past, which exist in our memories, are illuminated, while the future drowns in darkness. Perhaps a method will exist to light up the future, to widen the scope of this illumination. Or maybe there are those who can find the vague outlines of that which will be tomorrow, even in the darkness. Coming from a physicist, such attitudes might sound astounding but modern science does not exclude the fact that the future exists in the present in ways that are similar to how our pasts exist in our memories.


‘Iluminacja’ remain one of the most vivid and thoughtful commentaries on science in Poland during the communist period.Addressingconsciousness, the real effects of scientific discovery in the world, the role of technocratic experts (aka ‘the scientific elite’) and the knowability of the future, Zanussi’s film surveyed the new paths which had been set for science and technology during and after the volatile period of destalinization in the second half of the 1950s. The future – as will be seen below – was being imagined in terms set by cybernetics, artificial intelligence and computing, television, electronics as well as other novel and seemingly immaterial technologies. Progress in these fields was inevitable, at least according to the technological determinism which prevailed in the Eastern Bloc. In 1956 Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin had announced the Scientific Technological Revolution (STR), a programme intended to shape a new Soviet consciousness.[1] A scientifically literate and technologically expert society would be better able to compete with capitalism in the Cold War. The principal symbols of the era – space flight, atomic power and modern telecommunications – broadcast the triumphs of Soviet engineering and science to the world. In a similarly bullish mood, reform leader Władysław Gomułka took the stage at the Third Congress of the Polish United Workers’ Party in the same year to announce new conditions for intellectual life: ‘An atmosphere of free discussion in science, broadening contact with science all over the world, not excepting the capitalist countries, daring in handling new themes even though we are not always in accord with the directions this daring sometimes takes. These are all developments that are conducive to intellectual revival and are propitious for scientific progress.’[2]

But with Retman increasingly dissatisfied with the answers offered by science and medicine to his existential questions, Zanussi’s 1973 film also explores another legacy of the Thaw, that of doubt. After the trauma of Stalinism, intellectuals in Poland could no longer give their loyalty to authority unquestioningly. For one vocal commentator during the ‘Thaw’, philosopher Leszek Kołakowski, the heady promises of future science should not to be confused with the real challenges of socialism. Once a loyal communist, he became a vocal critic of the official course, damning the fetish then being made of science:


We observe the astonishing speed with which the new mythologies displace the old ones. In the intellectual life of a society in which the mechanism of tradition faith has become corroded, new myths proliferate with the greatest ease, even though they may originate in technical advances or scientific discoveries. Thousands of people fondly imagine that the friendly inhabitants of other planets will one day solve the problems from which humans cannot extricate themselves. For others the words ‘cybernetics’ embodies the hope of resolving all social conflicts.[3]


For Kołakowski the task of socialism was to improve the intellectual and environmental conditions of the individual in the present moment. This was an existential response to the interminable exaltation of the working classes during the Stalin years – fanfares made whilst ordinary citizens of all classes lived in miserable conditions and often in fear. The challenge for communism was the rehabilitation of the human being (one which was nourished by the ‘discovery’ and publication of the early writings of Karl Marx which articulated his ‘dream of the whole man’).

Exuberant scientism and doubting existentialism represented two poles of thought in the Thaw years (and after). What was the ‘ideal’ – or perhaps simply tolerable – relationship of the individual to technology in an age which heralded intelligent machines and the extension of the human body by means of genetics or even biological prostheses? This was an urgent question in a society which claimed both to defend the individual against exploitation and also to be advancing to the utopia of full communism. In what follows, I explore some of the ways in which artists, composers, writers, filmmakers and designers in Poland in the 1960s and early 1970s sought to answer it.

Command and Control

The declaration of the STR was accompanied by the revival of science fiction in the Eastern Bloc. Largely prohibited during the Stalin years because the genre had been employed as a vehicle for expressing doubts about the possibility of utopia, it offered a vivid platform for imagining the future and, perhaps, forgetting the recent past.Ikarie XB-1’, a Czechoslovak movie (dir. Jindřich Polák, 1963) is typical of its kind. Set in the year 2163, the film is an adaptation of StanisławLem’s Obłok Magellana (The Clouds of Magellan, 1955)and describes the long journey of the Ikarie XB-1, a space craft, to a satellite of the star Alpha Centauri known as ‘The White Planet’. Representatives of the communist society of the future, the crew encounter the floating wreck of a spaceship launched from earth in 1987. Its crew is long dead but the ancient craft still carries its highly-toxic cargo of nuclear and biological weapons. In this way, ‘Ikarie XB-1’ passed comment on the Cold War antagonisms of the day and signaled mankind’s long term destiny.

Ikarie XB-1

Ikarie XB-1

Much of the narrative of ‘Ikarie XB-1’ takes place on the spaceship’s flight deck, furnished with illuminated consoles and massive screens feeding images from the dark vacuum of outer space and pulsing abstract patterns. Life on board is overseen by the ‘Centrální Automat’, a computer with tremendous processing power which answers the crew’s questions in the machinic voice characteristic of the genre. Enveloped by this voice and enclosed by screens, the crew control the artificial environment and the flight of the ship through banks of switches, lights and monitors. Performing what they imagined to be the operating routines of the future, the actors ‘play’ the interfaces like musicians, rhythmically tapping out their instructions as if playing some kind of as yet unknown instrument. When the crew slip are rendered unconscious as an effect of a radiation cloud, the mission continues. The computer oversees an ‘unmanned shift’, before the crew revive twenty-four hours later.

This image of human dependency on the intelligent machine marked a significant shift in the technological imaginary of the Eastern Bloc under Soviet rule. During the Stalin years, for instance, the emergent science of Cybernetics had been represented as an ideological weapon which would deprive mankind of its humanity – a zombie science originating in the West which would replace humans with docile machines.[4] ‘The process of production realized without workers!’ screeched one Soviet critic with the pen name, ‘Materialist’. ‘Only with machines controlled by the gigantic brain of the computer! … what an enticing perspective for capitalism!’[5] Consequently, this adolescent science went underground with its early adepts camouflaging their interest with specialist jargon. In his 1955 novel on which ‘Ikarie XB-1’ had been based, Lem – for instance – substituted the term ‘mechanioristics’ (mechaneurystyki’) for cybernetics in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid censorship.

In the changed conditions of the Thaw, Cybernetics was recast as a technocratic and progressive science. The Polish adepts of this new creed promised to apply its insights to the planned economy,[6] to the classless society and to socialist culture.[7]Visions of intelligent machines which might divest man-made systems of human error and of dynamic, self-correcting communication techniques based on feedback loops seemed like a panacea for the economic inefficiencies inherited from Stalinism. Modest versions of the computerized space deck on ‘Ikarie XB-1’ were found in the command and control centres that began to be constructed in Eastern Europe in the 1960s. Computers were introduced into Główny Urząd Statystyczny (Chief Statistical Office) in Warsaw and the Państwowa Komisja Planowania (State Planning Commission), key bureaucratic instruments in the management of the command economy in Poland.

Państwowa Komisja Planowania (State Planning Commission),Warsaw,  late 1960s from Polska Sztuka Uzytkowa w 25-lecie PRL

Państwowa Komisja Planowania (State Planning Commission),Warsaw, late 1960s from Polska Sztuka Uzytkowa w 25-lecie PRL

Coal mines and power stations were modernized by the introduction of operation rooms equipped with illuminated panels to oversee the distribution of material, energy and working bodies in real time. Technocratic spaces, these information centres were, nevertheless, objects of public knowledge. Typically, they appeared in news reports as depopulated zones. If workers were present, they were white-coated personnel dedicated to servicing these new thinking machines. In ‘Komputery’ (‘Computers’, 1967), a short educational film made by Zanussi before ‘Iluminacja’, for instance, the camera tracks smoothly through banks of computers and monitors. The soundtrack, pulsing lights and the voice-over make it clear that these intelligent machines are at work on important tasks like calculating ‘the optimal economic plan.’ In a volte face, the ideological prohibition expressed so vehemently in the mid 1950s against the replacement of workers by machines seemed to have been overturned, though as Lem, writing on cybernetics ten years later, noted, the modern mind was still ‘haunted by the medieval myth of the homunculus, an artificially created intelligent being’.[8] And when Zanussi sets out to explain the switching mechanisms contained within the smooth cases of mainframe computers in his film, he choreographed children dressed in polka dots or stripes on a grid. Representing binary code, they symbolise innocence and, of course, the future: what better way to humanise the intelligent machine?

Ergonomics was another state-sponsored science which gained importance during the 1960s. An international field, Ergonomics in the PRL took particular interest in the measurement of the body at work, supplying data which could improve the design of equipment and machinery in state factories.

Ergonomic studies, IWP, Warsaw, 1966

Ergonomic studies, IWP, Warsaw, 1966

It provided ‘evidence’ of the claim that socialism could serve the needs of the worker better than capitalism and staked out a difference from the commercial practice of product styling. The Instytut Wzornictwo Przemysłowe (The Institute of Industrial Design) established its Zakład Badań Ergonomicznych (Department of Ergonomic Research) in Warsaw in 1964 to assess the design of machines and equipment. In the same year artist and designer Andrzej Pawłowski formed (with Zbigniew Chudzikiewicz) the Industrial Design Department at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków with a common purpose. Both drew on an extensive exercise in measuring Polish bodies which had been conducted between 1955 and 1959 by the Anthropometric Commission of the Polish Academy of Science (full data for 100,000 individuals). These largely static measurements were augmented in the course of the 1960s in numerous tests to test body movement – grip, stretch, rotation, reach, etc. – as well as human reaction and other effects of perception. By the early 1970s, the human instrument had been thoroughly mapped for the ‘needs of design’ and ‘the needs of the machine’.[9]

There are many precursors for this kind of design scientism: they include Frederick Winslow Taylor’s time and motion studies in American factories at the beginning of the twentieth century and the experiments of Alexei Gastev to improve worker efficiency in Soviet Russia in the 1920s.

'Russian Taylorism in Gastev's Institute: Investigations into the rational handling of firearms by means of chrono-cyclography'  (from René Fülöp-Miller, The Mind And Face Of Bolshevism, 1927).

‘Russian Taylorism in Gastev’s Institute: Investigations into the rational handling of firearms by means of chrono-cyclography’ (from René Fülöp-Miller, The Mind And Face Of Bolshevism, 1927).

A poet whose writings hymned the machine before the October Revolution (‘the iron demon of the age with human soul, nerves like steel, muscles like rail’[10]), Gastev imagined all aspects of life in the future as being regulated by self-regulating and self-correcting machines. Humanity would itself become machine-like, cleansed of irrational emotion – ‘no longer expressing himself through screams of pain or joyful laughter, but rather through a manometer or taxometer. Mass engineering will make man a social automation.’[11] To shape Soviet machine men and women, Gastev founded the Central Institute of Labour (Центральный институт труда) in 1920 which ran a network of training centres where workers were taught to think and act. Trainees were drilled to regulate their actions using tools at workbenches in order to conserve energy and maximize efficiency. One visitor to Soviet Russia wrote: ‘Anyone entering through the front door of this institute as a normal living man issues from the back door, after passing through countless laboratories, as a completely perfected working machine.’[12] Curiously, Gastev was attacked for not being ambitious enough: ‘ .. the mass man is to be part of a mighty aggregate of turbines, and not transformed into a might cobbler’s awl.’[13] In other words, in concentrating on the actions of the hand equipped with manual tools, Gastev’s programme did not live up to Lenin’s industrial ambitions. Nevertheless, the scale of the Central Institute of Labour’s programme was truly industrial: half million workers and 20,000 instructors were trained between 1921 and 1928.

Unlike Gastev, who sought to organize the body for maximum efficiency at the bench, ergonomic design in the PRL fifty years later claimed to reduce psychological and physical injury in the factory. ‘Through creativity in the industrial field,’ wrote Pawłowski in 1965, ‘we come to understand the most rational conditions for the protection of the biological and psychological existence of the human being, as well as the development of culture in industrial civilizations, the dynamics of which have become the cause of a dangerous loss of balance between civilization and the culture of its exploitation.’[14] Pawłowski claimed naturalizing and humanizing effects for his work in industrial design. In his designs, Marx’s ‘dream of the whole man’ still resonated.

Nevertheless, the visual data generated by ergonomic research formed a striking and often bizarre genre of images in the PRL. [ill 8] In tests, machines were reduced to their interfaces – buttons, pedals, levers and switches; workers were turned into gestures or functions; and factories and workshops were replaced by white-walled laboratories. Entirely absent were the products and services provided by these machines or their place in the networks of power or industry. Machines never failed in this new imaginary; and workers did not slack. In the most advanced expression of this science, the operations of driver of a crane or the use of a lathe could be rendered as algebraic formulae. As publicity for socialist science, ergonomics was a fetishistic, technocratic knowledge, providing the authorities with an image of ‘clean’ industry populated with willing workers (something that could not be guaranteed in life). By replacing the mammoth engineering works populated with sweating workers and coal-fired furnaces – the drive shafts of communist industry in the Stalin years – for the laboratory-like conditions of the command and control centre or the ergonomically-designed workstation, a symbolic decontamination of the past was also being undertaken. The violence and irrationalism of the Stalin years – the gulags, the show trials, delusional claims about the Party’s infallibility – could be flushed clean with science. And disconnected from the output of industry, ergonomics itself came – like the computers in the State Planning Commission – to seem like a closed circuit, disconnected from the real conditions of life.

In 1969 artist Zbigniew Makarewicz offered some ironic reflections on the cybernetic turn in his ‘Cybernetyczny system sterujący’ (Cybernetic Steering System) installed at his blankly-titled ‘Wystawa Sztuka’ (Exhibition of Art) at BWA in Wrocław. This was one of a number of temporary environments which Makarewicz created with high-tech names like ‘Centralny Generator Pulsacji Układu’, ‘Indykator Dedukcji Na Płaszczyźnie Zespolonej’, ‘Zespół Pamięci Komórkowej’, and ‘Schemat Kierunkowy Sterowania’. In Wrocław, shabby materials – an old lamp, inkpot, empty jars, a pre-war radio, a television with an adapted handle, dominos – were connected with wires trailing from a stepladder, perhaps some kind of ‘control centre’. These items looked as if they had been retrieved from the trash. Broken and shabby, these were precisely the kinds of mundane objects which the command economy – steered by cybernetics – was to do away with. Recalling the absurd operations of his system in 2013, Makarewicz pointed to its political symbolism: ‘A ballet was performed at the opening of the exhibition in which a dancer in a black leotard jumped from a box to the TV whilst reading from a Spanish dictionary along the lines of the speeches of Fidel Castro and then performing cycles of raising and lower [her] arms. Needless to say, this was a perverse criticism of real socialism with its obligatory slogans and exercises.’[15]


The Measure of Life

In Zanussi’s 1973 film ‘Iluminacja’, the young scientist Retman asks ‘Where does a man stop being a man?’ He is troubled by the the interventions that medical science makes into the minds and bodies of patients that he witnesses whilst working in a hospital. When a doctor asserts that the body is just a set of ‘biological processes’ in which medical science can ‘interfere’, Retman responds by saying that the ‘spirit’ and body are indivisible. And this seems to be Zanussi’s view too: later in ‘Iluminacja’, medicine’s confidence in its capabilities comes to seem overstated when the death of a patient after brain surgery to cure his epilepsy is depicted. But Zanussi’s purpose is not to highlight the failures of medicine but to test its limits. Retman’s question had been asked just a few years earlier in ‘Przekładaniec’ (‘Layer cake’) a short film adapted from a short story by Stanisław Lem for television by film director Andrzej Wajda in 1968.

Ostensibly, it is a light-hearted story of racing driver, Ryszard Fox, set in America in the near future. The downtown landscape is formed from sweeping concrete highways and glass curtain walled towers (with a newly competed point block in Warsaw’s ‘Ściana Wschodnia’ providing the hospital setting where much of the action takes place). Ryszard Fox receives his brother’s internal organs after his death in a crash on the racing circuit. So complete is the extent of the transplant of organs that Tomasz Fox’s life insurance company rejects his widow’s claim. As one character remarks in the film ‘When is a person alive? When his or her vital organs are alive. The places where they are situated are not important.’ With 70% of Tomasz’s biological material ‘invested’ in his brother and in others, he is, the company’s lawyer claims, only ‘30% dead’.

Lem’s story is comic and irreverent but it was not without a point. In fact, ‘Layer Cake’ belongs to a deep and often philosophical enquiry into the boundaries of the natural and the artificial, the human and the posthuman, as well as the acceleration of evolution, conducted by Lem in his novels, essays and philosophical books. The latter includes Summa Technologiae (1964), a work that he described as a ‘thought experiment’ into the long term effects and potential of technology. Indifferent to the limits set by ideology or by current science, Summa Technologiae, was ‘an attempt to predict what could not be predicted’.[16]In fact, Lem objected to the simple determinism which often accompanied most public discussions of the future – in the PRL and elsewhere. Not only was it impossible to project ‘progress’ – a key word in the vocabulary of power – along ‘straight paths of development’ but that many of the images of the future in circulation were, he argued, based on outmoded thinking. Of the ’contemporary attempt to populate outer space with space “ships,” including a brave “crew,” “watch officers,” “helmsmen” … on board’ in science fiction Lem wrote; ‘It is not that one should not write like this, but this kind of writing belongs to a genre of fantasy; it is a form of “reverse” nineteenth-century historical novel.’[17]

Summa Technologiae is a compendium of many themes – the search for extraterrestrial life, artificial intelligence, virtual reality – but the subject of the most vivid and original sections of the book concern the future of the human being.Projecting the acceleration of evolution by developments in biotechnology and genetics, he wrote ‘The invasion of technology created by man into his body is unavoidable’. In fact, Summa Technologiae presented an image of human kind dissolved in technology.Lem sketched worlds populated with various types of genetically, and biochemically modified human beings as diverse as ‘the various kinds of ants’. His concept of ‘Phantomology’ disturbed all the conventional metaphysics of humanism: a mind could be stimulated into the perception of being somewhere else or multiple individuals could be networked to a single brain. Life in space would, according to Lem, necessitate the ‘cyborgisation’ of the body:


The cyborg has a number of biological elements, such as the skeleton, the muscles, the skin, and the brain, but this brain consciously regulates what used to be involuntary body functions. In the key points of its organism, there are osmotic pumps, which, in case of need, inject nutritious or active agents – medication hormones impulse-inducing substances – or agents that lower basic metabolism, or even agents that induce hibernation. … The cyborg is not a partly prosthesized human; it is a human that has been reconstructed in part and equipped with an artificial system of nutritional regulation- which facilitates [its] adaptation to various cosmic environments.[18]


For Lem the cyborg was simply a stage in an accelerated process of evolution now that humankind had the means to alter its own biology. Moreover it demonstrated that the ‘current model’ of the human being – itself an adaptation to life on Earth – was no more universal or natural than the cyborg of the future.

Summa Technologiae expressed a view found throughout Lem’s writings: that the human being, as understood in the middle of the twentieth century, was not the fixed measure of life. A rebuttal of the anthropocentrism of most science fiction, this was also disavowal of the figure who had been claimed as the antidote to the disaster of Stalinism, that of the ‘whole man’. In the introduction to the 1974 edition of Summa Technologiae he wrote:


I do not trust any promise. I do not believe in assurances based on the so called humanism. The only way to deal with a certain technology is another technology. Today, man knows more about his dangerous inclinations than he knew a hundred years ago, and in another hundred years his knowledge will be even more complete.[19]


Far from rejecting the STR and other forms of scientism, Lem accused them of lacking daring.


Senses Divided

After watching ‘Przekładaniec’ on television in August 1969, Lem wrote to Wajda congratulating the director on his adaptation. He also noted the imaginative and ingenious ways in which the film’s designers (including Barbara Hoff, the celebrated fashion designer) had created the scenography and costumes: ‘The imminent, indefinite “future” has been very cleverly constructed, especially considering the scant means you had at your disposal.’[20] Poland in the late 1960s was – in material terms – poorly-equipped to embark on the creation of the brave new worlds of science fiction or the post-human forms of life projected in Summa Technologiae (a point made forcefully by Leszek Kołakowski in his critical review of the book.[21] Nevertheless, the STR had licensed a culture and infrastructure in which ‘experiments’ could be conducted not only by cyberneticists, psychologists and ergonomic designers but also by artists, film-makers, architects and musicians too. Galleries, theatres, film and recording studios were described in the 1960s – by their creators – as ‘laboratories’ and artworks as ‘instruments’. Belonging to the newly-licensed zone of ‘experimentation’ and sharing the official rhetoric of progress, these labs enjoyed resources and relative freedom from censorship.[22]

In these settings, artists used technology to extract and separate the functions of the body.Human faculties – like touch and sight – could, it seems, become object-like with the aid of technology. Composer Krzysztof Penderecki created, for instance, ‘Psalmus’, his major work of electronic music in the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio in 1961. Established three years earlier, the studio’s founder, Józef Patkowski, had imagined it as a kind of laboratory where a composer, working closely with a skilled engineer, could manipulate sounds materially (by editing and joining tape) and electronically (using filters and generators). Judgments could be made about the timbre, dynamics and pitch of any sound with little or no need to involve musicians. Working with recordings of basic elements of speech – vowels and consonants – Penderecki and engineer, Eugeniusz Rudnicki, filtered and processed the sound of two human voices, a soprano and a baritone. These treatments produced long notes which shifted in pitch and colour as well as percussive sounds and tremolo effects. Listening today, the piece remains extraordinary: a ‘natural’ capacity, the human voice, is rendered ‘artificial’ and given the task of expressing sounds rather than singing words. Here was a new conception of what a human voice might be when detached from its sounding body.

‘Stymulatory wrażeń nieadekwatnych’ (Stimulators of Non-adequate Impressions, 1963-4).

‘Stymulatory wrażeń nieadekwatnych’ (Stimulators of Non-adequate Impressions, 1963-4).

The author of an early experiment in an experimental recording studio, Penderecki was not alone in being galvanized by the prospect of capturing human faculties. Andrzej Pawłowski, a prominent artist as well as an industrial designer (see above), isolated the human facility of touch in a set of experimental devices that he called Stymulatory wrażeń nieadekwatnych’ (Stimulators of Non-adequate Impressions, 1963-4). [ill 10]Textured natural materials like roughly-cut timber and stone were placed in clinical white boxes. Users were encouraged to touch these things through narrow apertures with sleeves that made it impossible to see what was felt. Images and other objects were placed above in another box, which could only be penetrated with sight. According to Bożena Kowalska, this resulted in a ‘conflict between coherent sensations received by the sense of sight and touch.’[23] In dividing the senses, Pawłowski’s purpose was to better understand their interconnection in the human sensorium.

Artist Włodzimierz Borowski took a more abrasive approach to the stimulation and division of sensation. He began his career in the late 1950s creating abstract paintings and mixed-media objects which he called ‘Artons’. Made from paint, rubber and glass, some had lights powered with batteries. Artons seemed strikingly vital, at least in the eyes of one critic: ‘organisms endowed with their own kind of life; kinetic objects of metal and plastic, pulsating with electric lights turned on and off in some aleatory rhythm.’[24] In their animation and anti-illusionism, these works anticipated what in the 1960s became Borowski’s series of ‘syncretic shows’. In June 1966 he organized the second of these in the

II Syncretic Show of Włodzimierz Borowski, Foksal Gallery in Warsaw 1966 - MSN -

II Syncretic Show of Włodzimierz Borowski, Foksal Gallery in Warsaw 1966 – MSN –

in Warsaw. [ill 11]The small gallery was divided in two parts: in one, visitors encountered flashing spotlights and hanging mirrors, some spinning. The other space was occupied by the artist, isolated and invisible behind a screen formed by with plastic balls bristling with nails. Borowski, hidden, watched the reactions of the visitor. The audience was presented with itself in the mirrors, albeit in highly fragmented and temporary impressions. The eye was not allowed to focus or to rest. Borowski arranged the gallery as an experiment which both accentuated and denied vision, in this way drawing attention to sight itself. His preoccupation with visual perception was emphasized by the installation of a red illuminated sign with the command ‘Cisza’ (‘Silence’).

The show seemed to test ideas which Borowski had first outlined in his ‘Manifest Lustrzany’ (‘Mirror Manifesto’) written in Lublin in March 1963. In it, it becomes clear that silence is not just an auditory quality:


MIRROR. The unreal image of the object achieving the right illusions. Replaces the object of art as a catalyst of sensations. Eliminates the ‘noise’ that always accompanies the information provided by the image. In the traditional image there is only ‘noise’ when trying to take in the range of information.[25]


Art was diminished by ‘noise’, a term which Borowski had adopted from Norbert Wiener’s writings on cybernetics to describe ‘disturbance’ in a system (‘Organism is opposed to chaos, to disintegration, to death, as message is to noise’ – Wiener). Understood in this light, Borowski’s experiment in the Foksal Gallery sought to strip away the general conventions of art spectatorship to produce something like the pure experience of vision. In both Pawłowski and Borowski’s cases, an experiment was being conducted on the visitor. In the catalogue to his 1966 Krzysztofory Gallery exhibition – his fifth syncretic show – Borowski made this clear: ‘This show is an instrument with the help of which I examine the reactions of viewers, because man too is the object of my experiments.’


‘The only way to deal with a certain technology is another technology’

Many of these experimental schemes conducted by artists in the first half of the 1960s employed technology to draw attention to the fragmentation of the self. In dividing and enhancing the senses, Pawłowski was, for instance, interested in how they might be better combined. But at the end of the decade more self-consciously critical approaches to the extension of the body by technology appeared in Polish art. In the aftermath of the events of 1968, the principal axioms the Thaw – that technology was innately progressive or that Soviet-style socialism could be reformed and humanized – came to seem naïve.[26] Makarewicz’s ‘Cybernetic Steering System’ – discussed above – is one marker of a new, critical sensibility. Others include the early works of the artist Krzysztof Wodiczko, a recent graduate of the Warsaw Academy of Fine Art industrial design programme. Of his studies, Wodiczko said ‘I was trained to be a member of the elite unit of designers, skillful infiltrators who were supposed to transform existing state socialism into an intelligent, complex, and human design project.’[27] As if to fulfill this destiny, he had been employed as a designer for Unitra, the main state electronics conglomerate in Warsaw. This was not his only connection to the experimental zone of technology: the son of a prominent conductor, he was also connected to the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio. In fact, he turned to the Studio’s engineers for advice on the construction of a series of technological artworks that can be understood as musical instruments.[28]

Photographs and publicity for Krzysztof Wodiczko's ‘Personal Instrument’ (1969) now in the collection of the Muzeum Sztuki, Lodz, author's photograph

Photographs and publicity for Krzysztof Wodiczko’s ‘Personal Instrument’ (1969) now in the collection of the Muzeum Sztuki, Lodz, author’s photograph

His Instrument Osobisty (Personal Instrument, 1969) was, for instance, an electronic device worn on the head and hands. Responding to the movements of the wearer, the device allowed the individual to amplify or diminish the flow of sound from the environment. A sensor on the glove turned the hand into a microphone. With his or her arms raised to filter the sounds, the wearer seemed to be conducting the city, making the traffic and conversations and footsteps of the passersby seem like instruments. In a text describing the operation of the Personal Instrument, Wodiczko wrote:


The instrument allows the conversion of ambient sound.
The instrument relies on the movement of the hand.
The instrument responds to sunlight.
The instrument is portable.
The instrument is used in any place and at any time.
The instrument is intended solely for the author.
The instrument enables the author to achieve virtuosity.


One year later Wodiczko prepared an instrument for the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio.

Wodiczko, Instrument–laboratorium perkusyjne (Instrument–Percussion Laboratory)

Wodiczko, Instrument–laboratorium perkusyjne (Instrument–Percussion Laboratory)

It was a compact grid of metal beams and joints that formed a frame with precise dimensions (396 x 396 x 288 cm). Panels within the framework could carry flat grilles to hold sound sources (including the percussive instruments of the object’s title), microphones and lighting equipment. With strong columns at the corners, the structure could be repositioned in different settings. Wodiczko arranged for the structure, which was illuminated by its own lights, to be photographed in darkened space, thereby emphasizing its universal qualities. In the technical drawings for the design, he presented the performer at the heart of the structure as a human silhouette, in the manner of an ergonomic system being employed by industrial designers or even the human figure framed by geometry in Le Corbusier’s Modulor (1945) system for architectural measurement. The Instrument-Percussion Laboratory was, it seemed, the most flexible and universal of instruments. ‘In their experiments today,’ wrote Wodiczko, with the deadpan logic of the design technocrat, ‘a great number of composers and performers use percussion-generated audio material. Musicians like this material for its acoustic variety. The simplest percussive sources of sound are forms made with solid, rigid or acoustically resilient matter, structured as open forms or planes, in the shape of pipes, rods, sheets, foils, the so-called acoustic niches of various sizes, quantities and proportions. Musicians dream of freely combining, exchanging, congesting, rearranging and operating such forms to fit their intentions and needs.’[29]

In these projects, Wodiczko seemed—at least ostensibly—to extend human capacities. The Personal Instrument turned everyday activities like walking in the city into music and the Instrument–Percussion Laboratory was, as Wodiczko said explicitly, an open form. Yet the forms of these objects clearly confounded the neutral, technical explanations that Wodiczko gave his works. They are better understood as allegorical devices. The Personal Instrument, for instance, alluded to the practices and technologies of surveillance, a branch of applied electronics that was put to malign effects in the Eastern Bloc under communist rule.[30] Moreover, Wodiczko’s instrument – which seemed to require the emphatic hand and arm movements of it wearer – produced the unsettling image of a man under the control of a machine. Similarly, the Instrument–Percussion Laboratory contained its user, dreaming of control over his or her environment, in a prison-like grid of geometry.

Wodiczko’s antihumanism was rare in the PRL in the late 1960s and 1970s but not unique. The Warsztat Formy Filmowej (Workshop of Film Form) was established in 1970 as a section of a science club at the Łódź Television, Film and Theatre School.[31] Founding members included Wojeciech Bruszewki, Paweł Kwiek, Andrzej Różycki, Zbigniew Rybczyński and Józef Robakowski. Critical of the teaching programme of the School and, at the same time, drawing resources from it (including 35mm film stock, editing tables, video cameras and monitors), the Workshop belonged to the ’experimental zone.’ In particular, the Workshop’s members formed a sharp critique of narrative film, and its dependence on ‘characters’ and plots. In 1975 Robakowski wrote ’We are trying to develop techniques to characterize film beyond the theory of literature hence the revival of interest in the so called ‘pure cinema’ and the effects to purify film from any possible narrative structures and the method of literary poetics.’[32]

The Workshop’s members were, as Kwiek recalls, ‘scientifically minded’, reading widely in psychology and cybernetics.[33] Working with film, photography and, within a few years, video, they set out to explore the practices of the ‘operator’ rather than the artist. Many of the films created by the Workshop’s members have the procedural, though often improvised, character of a test: what will be the effect of this action in these conditions? Objectivity was set as an ideal: ‘A documentary film’s aim is to provide the truth about man’, wrote Paweł Kwiek in 1974 for instance, ‘both for the sake of Art as well as from a scientific point of view. So far, however, it has not been possible to prevent the distortion of the truth, which results from (the subjectivity of the creator).’ Direct forms of image making like the camera could, he thought then, diminish such distortions: ‘We can conclude’, he continued, ‘that the truth we receive from man is based on direct contact with him, regardless of what he would like to show himself or in what fashion he would like to be perceived …’.[34]

One approach to direct forms of image making was to combine medium and body (resulting in what Robakowski called ‘biological-mechanical records’).In an early ‘test’ film, Prostokąt dynamiczny (Dynamic Rectangle, 1971), he recorded his attempts to match the insistent, mechanical rhythm of a piece of music created by Eugeniusz Rudnik in the Experimental studio of Polish Radio (Penderecki’s engineer when making ‘Psalmus’ ten years earlier). The on-screen image of a pulsing and mutating red rectangle was achieved by Robakowski opening and closing a diaphragm manually in front of the 35mm camera as he listened to the music. The piece is never quite in sync as the image (created by the live movements of the artist) fails to accurately match the sound (pre-recorded music). Knowing that behind the image there is a body falling short of the measure of the machine lends poignancy to Robakowski’s ‘test’.

Kwiek, ‘Video C’ (1975) - stills - movie can be seen here -

Kwiek, ‘Video C’ (1975) – stills

Similarly, ‘Video C’ (1975) by Paweł Kwiek, made when the members of the Workshop were given access to a television studio, records the hands of an operator (Kwiek himself) manipulating the faders and buttons of a vision mixer, a device used to switch between video sources in a TV studio or to add graphic effects to the picture. [ill 14]The operator appears to be using his fingers to move a triangular cursor around the TV screen. Sometimes it seems to hover, as if trying to touch the on-screen hand or to trace the line of the operator’s arm in space: sometimes the on-screen hand responds, appearing to palm the cursor back or to map its three points with a pinch of the fingers. Kwiek explained his interest in this impossible union thus ‘I construct such sets where the observed reality is the human being, for whom, in turn, the image of reality is his own constructed image.’[35] In this mise-en-abyme, what distinguished a human being from his or her electronic image dissolved.

What is striking about the works produced by the members of the Workshop of Film Form (and Wodiczko’s instruments) is that many of their ‘experiments’ were conducted on themselves. In other words, they were self-experiments in which one was both a performer and an observer at the same time. In closed circuits such as this, self-portrayal becomes a form of self-observation. Numerous commentators have identified a degree of schizophrenia in arrangements created by artists like Bruce Nauman: ‘The medium of video art’, writes Rosalind Krauss, for instance, ‘is the psychological condition of the self split and doubled by the mirror reflection of synchronous feedback.’[36] In the case of the films made by Workshop of the Film Form, one might also detect a kind of pathetic quality: Robakowski’s body fails to fall in line with the rhythm of the machine; and Kwiek’s ‘Video C’ attempts an impossible act (one kind of immaterial pointer, a cursor, attempts to touch another, a human finger). Science and technology – the site of considerable hubris in the PRL in the 1960s and early 1970s – was used, it seems, to produce pathos. In their claims on objectivity and body-machine union, the works by the members of Workshop of the Film Form ought to be a kind of high water mark of scientism in the PRL. Moreover they were made at a time when a new regime under Secretary of the Polish United Worker’s Party Edward Gierek was announcing yet another scientifically-minded modernization programme – known as ‘Druga Polska’ (Second Poland). This is the context in which the Workshops’ members enjoyed access to well-equipped television studios, for instance. Strange then, that their distinctly posthuman films and video artworks drew attention to human failure.






[1] See Konstantin Ivanov, ‘Science after Stalin: Forging a New Image of Soviet Science’ in Science in Context, vol. 15 no. 2(2002), 317-338.

[2] Gomułka cited SL Shneiderman, The Warsaw Heresy (New York: Horizon Press), 250

[3]Leszek Kołakowski, ‘The Jester and the Priest’ [1959] in Towards a Marxist Humanism (London, 1970), 57.

[4]Cybernetics was introduced by American mathematician Norbert Wiener in his book Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (1948). The science of ‘control and communication in the animal and the machine’, it focused attention on the interactions of parts in a system, one which might including both machines and beings. ‘It is my thesis that the physical functioning of the living individual and the operation of some of the newer communication machines are precisely parallel in their analogous attempts to control entropy through feedback’ (Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1950) 26.

[5] Cited in Slava Gerovitch, From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics (Cambridge, MA; MIT Press, 2002) 128

[6] Oskar Lange, Introduction to Economic Cybernetics (Warsaw: ‪Polish Scientific Publishers, 1970).

[7] Józef Kossecki, Cybernetyka kultury (Warsaw: PIW, 1974).

[8] Stanisław Lem, Summa Technologiae (Kraków: Wyd. Lit, 1964) 106.

[9] See A. Bogatowska and J Slownickowski, Atlas antropometryczny dorosłej ludności Polski dla postrzeb projektowania (Warsaw: IWP, 1974).

[10] Gastev’s Poetry of the Worker’s Blow’ cited and translated by Rolf Hellebust, Flesh to Metal. Soviet Literature and the Alchemy of Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003) 50

[11] Gastev cited in Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (Oxford / New York: OUP) 152.

[12]René Fülöp-Miller, The Mind and Face of Bolshevism (London/New York: Putnam and Sons, 1927) 211.

[13] Unidentified critic in René Fülöp-Miller, The Mind and Face of Bolshevism (London/New York: Putnam and Sons, 1927) 212.

[14] Andrzej Pawłowski. ‘Cel i założenia Wydziału Form Przemysłowych’ (1965) in Inicjacje. O sztuce, projektowaniu i kształceniu projektantów Biblioteka wzornictwa 6’87 (Warsaw: IWP, 1987).

[15] – accessed March 2014.

[16] ‘[What] I confronted myself with was like a paradoxon: to predict what could not be predicted. I am an anti-historicist, like Popper who thinks that history is as unforeseeable as the natural evolution of the species. On this, I agree with him’, Stanisław Lem, introduction to the German edition of Summa Technologiae, 1978 reproduced on-line – accessed January 2010.


Stanisław Lem, Summa Technologiae (Kraków: Wyd. Lit, 1964) 15.

[18] Ibid, 381-2.

[19] Stanisław Lem, Summa Technologiae, 1974 edition translated by Joanna Zylinska, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) 12.


[21]‘One day humanity will invent telephones with which you can call Pruszków from Warsaw easily, build an elevator which will work for weeks without breaking down, as well as glue suitable for gluing and razors suitable for shaving’. Leszek Kołakowski, ‘Informacja i utopia’ in Twórczość (November 1964) 117

[22] See David Crowley and Daniel Muzyczuk, Sounding the Body Electric: Experiments in Art and Music in Eastern Europe, 1957-1984 (Łódź: Muzeum Stuki, 2012).

[23] Bożena Kowalska, Polska avantgarda malarska 1945-1970 (Warsaw: 1975) p. 161.

[24] A. Kępińska, ‪Nowa sztuka: sztuka polska w latach 1945-1978 (Warsaw: WAF 1981),65.

[25] W. Borowski, “Artony i Manilusy’, exhibition catalogue, BWA Lublin 1966, np.

[26]Principally, the repression of student protests in Poland and the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact forces.

[27]Douglas Crimp, Rosalyn Deutsche and Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, ‘A conversation with Krzysztof Wodiczko’ in October 38 (autumn 1986) 33.

[28] Interview with Krzysztof Szlifirski by the author, Warsaw, 2010.

[29] Krzysztof Wodiczko, ‘Instrument – laboratorium perkusyjne’ in Res Facta, 5 (1971) 185.

[30] See Robert Ciupa, Monika Komaniecka, Szpiegowski arsenał bezpieki. Obserwacja, technika operacyjna, kontrola korespondencji jako środki pracy Służby Bezpieczeństwa PRL (Katowice-Kraków: IPN, 2011).

[31] See see Łukasz Ronduda, Polish Art of the 1970s (Jelenia Góra / Warsaw: Polski Western / CCA Ujazdowski Castle, 2009) 300-14.

[32]Józef Robakowski, ‘Bezjęzykowa koncepcja semiologiczna filmu’ Zeszyt Warsztat Formy Filmowej 7 (1975) – available at – accessed March 2014

[33] Kwiek in conversation with the author, summer 2013.

[34]Paweł Kwiek, Dokument obiektywny o człowieku [Objective Document About Man], 1976 unpublished mss, Centre for Contemporary Art., Ujzadowskie Castle,CSW Archive.


[35] Paweł Kwiek, ’Co robię’ in Ryszard Kluszczyński, ed., Warsztat Formy Filmowej (Warsaw: Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej Zamek Ujazdowski, 2000) 71.

[36] Rosalind Krauss, ‘The Post-medium Condition’ in Perpetual Inventory (Boston MA: MIT Press, 2010) 10.

Poster maths

Eastern Europe, Graphic Design

This short text appears in the catalogue of the International Poster Biennale which opened in Warsaw in June 2014. I was one of the jurors.

24th_ipb-posterThe jury of the 24th International Poster Biennale used a website gallery to make their first assessment of the 3814 entries in this year’s competition. Each poster was viewed on-screen as a large thumbnail. A few seconds thought, then a click. Five, four, three, two or one? If an image warranted a closer look or was particularly detailed, another click opened up a larger image for scrutiny.


3814 posters ÷ 2 days viewing = 15.1 seconds per poster


This is a practical way of reviewing a daunting number of poster designs. With an international jury with members from five countries, and with entries from many more, how could it be otherwise? Of course, the poster is a material object, designed to be encountered on a wall or a billboard. But it is also designed to catch the eye in seconds or even less. Fast viewing is the necessary condition of the poster. And, perhaps, it is even under pressure today to deliver its effects with even greater speed. Posters on the street now are accompanied by the animated billboards and, of course, the portable screens in our hands.

So what kind of posters should benefit from this on-line reviewing system? Well, one might imagine that the answer would point to posters which deliver their effects with clear and powerful symbols. This has long been a valued quality of the poster. After visiting Cuba in 1969 and seeing works by poster designers like Felix Beltran and Alfredo Rostgaard, Susan Sontag put it thus: ‘The values of a poster are first those of “appeal,” and only second of information. The rules for giving information are subordinated to the rules which endow a message, any message, with impact: brevity, asymmetrical emphasis, condensation.’ Designer Abram Games put it even more economically when he called for Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means’. So by his measure, simple and boldly graphic devices combined with punchy copy should capture the viewer’s attention.

But when viewing so many posters in a short period of time, one becomes sensitive to repetition. An ‘efficient’ lexicon of symbols rapidly becomes a cluster of stereotypes and even clichés. Every death is a skull; every environmental warning invokes the Earth in the dark vacuum of space; every threatened species is a penguin. It soon becomes clear that other visual qualities have greater appeal: rippling surface decoration, bespoke lettering, and forms of photomontage which unsettle space or time, stand out. In fact, unfamiliarity and complexity are attractive in the company of so much condensation.

This might, of course, be a byproduct of the Biennale’s reviewing process: difference is bound to stand out. But perhaps this is also a sign of the appeal of images which slow us down. In a world of accelerated communication, perhaps one appeal of the poster today be the quiet invitation to look? Might it be possible for posters to slow down perception, and even to create silences in a noisy world?


Pop Effects in Eastern Europe under Communist Rule

Collage, Eastern Europe, Modernism, Uncategorized

PA8In September 1974 Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid exhibited four works at an exhibition of nonconformist art in Moscow, which had been reluctantly permitted by the authorities. Two weeks earlier, the artists had had an artwork – a double self-portrait as Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin – destroyed in the notorious demolition of the ‘Bulldozer Exhibition’, another open-air display of nonconformist art.[1] The state-sponsored violence (conducted by loyal workers outraged at the anti-Soviet art, according to official reports) had caused a storm of international protest and so a second exhibition was hastily organised. Komar and Melamid’s canvases in this second show appeared to be heavily damaged showpieces of pop art: they included versions of one of Andy Warhol’s 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans 1962 and Robert Indiana’s The Confederacy: Alabama 1965.

Komar and Melamid, Post-Art

Komar and Melamid, Post-Art

Works from their ‘Post-Art’ series, the canvases appeared as if they had been salvaged by citizens of the Soviet Union from some kind of catastrophe that had befallen capitalist America. Interpreted in these eschatological terms, Komar and Melamid’s works could be aligned with official analyses of history in the Soviet Union. In the early 1970s, Nikita Khrushchev’s 1961 ringing promise to ‘catch up and overtake the West’ was still being repeated by the Kremlin (even when it was widely known that the Soviet Union was dependent on importing US food stuffs and machinery).[2] Nevertheless, Komar and Melamid’s ‘Post-Art’ hardly represented orthodoxy: art in the Soviet Union during the Leonid Brezhnev era (1964–82) was to provide ringing, uplifting images of Soviet progress.

Pop art was an unmistakably foreign phenomenon to both its champions and enemies in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. A number of Soviet commentators – including prominent aestheticians – wrote book-length studies of pop art in the 1960s and early 1970s.[3] Their objection to pop art belonged to a broader critique of what ideologues called the ‘decadence’ of the West, a word that signalled the abandonment of the uplifting role of culture in favour of base and selfish pleasures. As such, pop art presented a pronounced version of what Soviet critics detected more generally in modernism. Their high-minded critiques were also underscored by deep-set anxiety about the effects of mass culture in the Soviet Union. As the state invested in television, pop music and limited forms of consumerism, to satisfy the growing expectations of Soviet citizens, patrician ideologues worried about what they saw as their pernicious effects.

Even if the Soviet engagement with pop art was predominately antagonistic, it testifies to the fact that the works of Andy Warhol or Robert Rauschenberg as well as pop art from Western Europe was known, at least indirectly, through their reproduction in books and magazines. These materials often arrived ‘off set’, via the ‘fraternal’ nations of the Eastern Bloc where, by comparison, more liberal cultural policies were in place. Many Soviet artists and critics testify to having read illustrated magazines such as Projekt (Poland) and Umění (Czechoslovakia) to extract information about developments in the West.[4] Well-travelled and well-informed writers like Jindřich Chalupecký in Czechoslovakia and Urszula Czartoryska in Poland wrote articles and books on contemporary art that detailed the activities of the Independent Group in London or the Sonnabend Gallery in New York.[5] Their analyses were remarkably free of the heavy hand of official ideology and might even be read indirectly as a critique of Soviet culture. In his 1965 book, Umění dnes (Art Today), Chalupecký, for instance, characterised pop as social critique, writing: Too often art disguises the truth: here, instead, it is revealed. This is the theory and the practice of anti-art. [Daniel] Spoerri only fixes a random piece of ordinary reality in his ‘snare pictures’ (a table with the dishes after a meal, a shelf with spices); Wolf Vostell uses the direct methods of Pop Art – such as reproduction of news photographs – to make a shocking critique of modern society.[6]  Czech readers may well have interpreted Chalupecký’s words as a rebuttal of the seemingly unshakeable Soviet tenet of realism in the arts.

Opportunities for the citizens of Moscow’s satellites in Eastern Europe and former Yugoslavia to see works of art by Western pop artists first hand also occurred, albeit infrequently. The first exhibition of pop art in the region, featuring screenprints by Jim Dine, Allen Jones and Andy Warhol among others, was held in Belgrade and Zagreb (both in former Yugoslavia) in 1966 with sponsorship by tobacco concern, Philip Morris International.[7] Three years later the Smithsonian Institution organised a larger touring show of American art after 1945 entitled The Disappearance and the Reappearance of the Image, which featured works by Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg and Claes Oldenburg. It travelled to various Eastern European cities including Prague (former Czechoslovakia) (remarkably twelve months after Warsaw Pact forces repressed the reform movement there). These US displays belong to the long and well-recorded history of attempts to use modern art and design to broadcast ‘American values’ during the Cold War.[8] Interest in pop in Eastern Europe also took in its Western European variants. Strong French connections in Poland brought the works of Alain Jacquet, a representative of nouveau réalisme, to the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, Poland, where he had a solo exhibition in May–June 1969, and to the Foksal Gallery in Warsaw, where he arranged a performance of ‘Le Tricot de Varsovie’, which involved the production of a large soft sculpture in situ.

The effect of these various encounters with spectacular works of pop art on artists from Eastern Europe is clear. A number of young artists went through a pop phase. Hungarian painter László Lakner, for instance, who has admitted a debt to Rauschenberg, started doubling and fragmenting his careful renderings of documentary photographs and masterpieces of art history.[9] Instead of using the mechanical process of screen printing, Lakner painted these photographic details by hand. Later, in the 1970s, he was to extend his interest in documents in conceptual and photorealist works.

Tomislav Gotovac, My Jazz Day 1964. Printed photographs, newspapers, painted paper, cigarette butts, razors, glue / hardboard. Galerie Frank Elbaz /

Tomislav Gotovac, My Jazz Day 1964. Printed photographs, newspapers, painted paper, cigarette butts, razors, glue / hardboard. Galerie Frank Elbaz /

In former Yugoslavia, Tomislav Gotovac – later well known as a performance artist and filmmaker – made numerous collage works throughout the 1960s using advertisements, packaging and pages from magazines from the West and, as Yugoslavia underwent its own consumer revolution, from local sources too. Leonhard Lapin, the central figure in nonconformist art in the former Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, was one of the founders of a short-lived pop alliance called ‘Soup 69’ (another reference to Warhol) at the end of the 1960s.[10] For these and other artists, pop was often a brief experiment in careers that were later made in performance, conceptual art, experimental film or other artistic practices that established deeper footings in the artistic cultures of Eastern Europe in the 1970s. Pop provided an introduction to the practice of appropriation, a rebuttal of the shibboleths of modernist art: self-expression, originality and individuality. This was what made this embryonic and fleeting engagement with pop at the end of the 1960s an important watershed: the revival of modern art, and of abstract painting in particular, after the death of Stalin and the so called ‘Thaw’ of the mid-1950s had been strongly motivated by humanist principles, not least intellectual and artistic freedom.[11] Ten years later new questions about the effects of the mechanised image seemed to press on the minds of artists in Eastern Europe.

This interest ran through happenings, performances, environments and experimental films as well as early forms of conceptual art in Eastern Europe.[12] In fact, those categories that have been used to describe art in the West – such as pop art – have often been rejected by both artists and critics in Eastern Europe as inadequate and distorting labels. In 1971 János Major made a conceptual artwork in which he combined a small photograph of the tombstone of an otherwise forgotten man called Lajos Kubista with a 17-point text that begins:

1. Cubist Lajos was interred at the Farkasrét Cemetery in Budapest

2. Cubism was born in Budapest

3. No ism was born in Budapest

4. Victor Vasarely was born in Hungary

5. Op-art was not born in Hungary

6. Nicolas Schöffer was born in Kalocsa

7. Kinetic art was not born in Kalocsa

8. Theodore Herzl was born in Budapest

9. Zionism was not born in Budapest

10. The father of the nuclear bomb, Leó Szilárd was born in Hungary, died in the USA

11. Pop-art was born in the USA, its influence extended to Hungary … [13]


Major’s doleful text emphasised the alienness of many international currents in modernism, even those that had Hungarian-born pioneers. His point could be extended to other Eastern Bloc cultures too. Moreover, critics – particularly those writing about the Soviet Union – have often denied the existence of pop art in Eastern Europe under Communist rule because consumerism never succeeded there.

Ilya Kabakov, Pipe, Stick, Ball and Fly 1966, Ceramic relief, enamel and oil on plywood. Ludwig Forum für international Kunst

Ilya Kabakov, Pipe, Stick, Ball and Fly 1966, Ceramic relief, enamel and oil on plywood. Ludwig Forum für international Kunst

Of the brilliant early works by Russian artist Ilya Kabakov, which feature casts of mundane objects from Soviet life seemingly set into blank surfaces (such as Pipe, Stick, Ball and Fly 1966), Matthew Jesse Jackson writes, they ‘resembled constructions such as Warhol’s Brillo Boxes: ambiguous, three-dimensional eruptions that coalesced with their surroundings whilst remaining tenuously distinct from them … This work has nothing in common with films, advertisements, magazine covers, television programs, and comic books – the raw material of Western Pop art – but a great deal to do with the desolate Soviet consumerscape.’[14]

The fact that Eastern European citizens confronted shortages and queues in their daily lives is undeniable,[15] but that does not mean that they were unaware of the existence of consumer goods. In Eastern Europe under Communist rule, this knowledge could be both a matter of fantasy and of frustration. Consumer goods and images acquired from the West – particularly clothes, cosmetics, foodstuffs and LP records – gained special significance. Mundane in their original, capitalist context, such things came to carry a heightened importance not only because of their rarity but also because the unfamiliar materials and seductive forms of Western consumer goods could trigger fantasies about capitalist civilisation. Gotovac’s early pop collages – featuring pin-ups and branded goods from the West – are full of libidinal desire. Frustration that was felt strongly by many citizens in the former Yugoslavia and the Eastern Bloc was the product of the gap between expectation (opened up by Soviet promises to ‘catch up and overtake the West’) and experience. In fact, many countries in Eastern Europe underwent their own consumer revolutions at the end of the 1960s in which ‘soft sell’ advertising, brightly packaged and branded consumer goods, new kinds of shops such as supermarkets and fashion boutiques as well as ‘lifestyle’ magazines promised ‘socialist consumerism’.

March 1967 issue of Ty i Ja (You and I) magazine published in Poland.

March 1967 issue of Ty i Ja (You and I) magazine published in Poland.

In the recursive fashion characteristic of pop in the West too, many film posters, magazine covers and LP sleeves featured serial images that were dressed in the flattened forms and bright colours of pop art.

The response to the spread of commodity aesthetics across what Polish art historian Mieczysław Porębski called the ‘ikonosfera’ (iconosphere) was not uncritical.[16]

A work in Natalia LL's Consumption Art series, 1972–5, see

A work in Natalia LL’s Consumption Art series, 1972–5, see

Feminist artist Natalia LL in Poland produced a body of works that she called ‘Sztuka Konsumpcyjna’ (Consumption Art, 1972–5 – films and photographic series in which a model toyed with a hot dog, a banana and a runny pudding in a highly sexual manner, exaggerating the techniques of arousal employed in advertising. In former Yugoslavia, Sanja Iveković addressed the way in which the authorities sought to balance socialist politics with free-market economics. The ‘Ekonomsko Propagandni Program’ (Economic Propaganda Programme) broadcast daily on Radiotelevizija Zagreb was, in effect, state-sponsored advertising of domestic and, sometimes, international products. In Sweet Violence 1974 Iveković recorded one of these broadcasts on a television overpainted with black bars, a simple gesture that alluded to illusory freedoms offered by consumerism. Both Iveković and Natalia LL were preoccupied with the effects of the media – the Polish artist being interested in distinguishing authentic sexuality from its reified forms and Iveković in understanding how private life is haunted by the commercial image. Such differences aside, these works belong to a New Left critique made on both sides of the Iron Curtain, namely that East and West were coming increasingly to resemble each other. A few years earlier Raoul Vaneigem had written in his book, The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967):


The cultural détente between east and west is not accidental! On the one hand, homo consomator buys a bottle of whiskey and as a free gift the lie that accompanies it. On the other, Communist man buys ideology and gets as a free gift a bottle of vodka. Paradoxically, Soviet and capitalist regimes are taking a common path, the first thanks to their economy of production, the second thanks to their economy of consumption.[17]


So was there a distinctly Eastern European pop art? Can the phenomenon only be understood as ripples of what Czartoryska called a ‘wave’, which originated in the West?[18] Pop was, as she observed in 1965, a form of art that in its original setting passed comment on the incessant demands of mass media images on their audiences not through direct and explicit critique but through repetition, multiplication and concentration (‘their creativity is a kind of dramatic intensification of sensation’[19]). Viewed in these terms, the chief claim on the title of Eastern Bloc pop must surely belong to Sots-art. A compression of two terms (Sotsrealism/pop art), Sots-art was coined by the Russian duo Komar and Melamid to describe their own artworks in 1972. In this year they began creating works that treated the mass slogans and political images that formed a ubiquitous backdrop to life in the Soviet Union as art. Early Sots-art works included Our Goal-Communism 1972, a plain red banner painted with a slogan in white block letters and signed by the artists. Another in the series, entitled Quotation 1972, simply replaced the letters with tidy white blocks arranged in a grid bracketed with quotation marks. This was a code, seemingly without a message. Nevertheless, it made a point that was articulated a few years later by the Czech dissident writer Václav Havel describing a Communist Party poster: ‘The real meaning of the … slogan has nothing to do with what the text of the slogan actually says. Even so, this real meaning is quite clear and generally comprehensible because the code is so familiar.’[20] Other Komar and Melamid works approached ideology as a commodity, as if illustrating Vaneigem’s words above. In 1974 the duo created a series of ersatz products: hamburgers ground from a copy of Pravda (itself a performance and Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky Flavoured Vodka (the latter featuring Isaak Brodsky’s 1936 much-reproduced portrait of the Soviet writer on the label). Alongside the painter Eric Bulatov, Komar and Melamid were the first artists to rework the codes and symbols of Soviet propaganda. Often exercises in appropriation, their early works have a kind of cool, ironic tone that is lacking in the sardonic combinations of Western adspeak and Soviet imagery characteristic of much later Sots-art.

Sándor Pinczehelyi, Sickle and Hammer 1973

Sándor Pinczehelyi, Sickle and Hammer 1973

Sots-art was not exclusively a Soviet phenomenon (although it was longest lived there). In Hungary in 1973 Sándor Pinczehelyi created Sickle and Hammer, a self-portrait holding the central symbol of Soviet authority (and, as the tools of the workers, its claim on legitimacy) (see fig.5). Some versions are overprinted in a wash of red. Aleš Erjavec has described this work as an attempt at demystification: ‘The Hammer and Sickle have lost their original meaning as mere tools and have been completely appropriated by the symbolic universe of political ideology. It is now up to the artist to revert them back to their non-symbolic, quotidian reality, producing by this procedure an artistic effect.’[21] Pinczehelyi’s straight-faced stance was read as both loyalty and dissent: ‘Everyone sensed irony at that time’, recalled critic László Beke, ‘a man positioned in a heroic stance with a hammer and sickle, yet the police were unable to accuse him of subversive activity.’[22]

The ambivalence of irony has allowed critics to read other works produced in Eastern Europe as critical commentaries on power.

Otašević’s triptych To Communism, Lenin’s Way 1967

Otašević’s triptych To Communism, Lenin’s Way 1967

Young Yugoslav artist Dušan Otašević’s triptych To Communism, Lenin’s Way 1967 featuring the Bolshevik leader is a case in point. Lenin gestures to a five-point red star on the left-hand panel while another, on the right, has a traffic sign marked with the symbol for ‘no right turn’. Produced in the year when much of the world was reflecting – often critically – on the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution and Lenin’s image was being widely reproduced, Otašević’s telegraphic aesthetic perhaps alluded to the enervation of the revolutionary spirit. Other works of this period include his Comrade Tito, White Violet, Our Youth Loves You 1969, a combine made from timber and aluminium panels with a vividly-coloured portrait of the Yugoslav leader as a Second World War partisan, under an ‘empty’ red star. Kitsch, and seemingly composed in the manner of amateur propaganda displays, Otašević’s portrait lacked the aura of heroism and ideological sanctity that characterised almost all Yugoslav representations of Tito. Weighing up the political character of these and other works by Otašević, Branislav Dimitrijević has characterised them as ambivalent reactions to the ways in which socialist ideology and Western consumer culture were becoming entwined.[23]

The extent to which pop art in the West constituted a critical practice has preoccupied many critics and historians. Although pop works produced in Britain and the USA in the 1960s once seemed to have critical and anti-authoritarian potential, they were subsumed easily within the gallery system. Writing of the work of celebrity artists such as Warhol, Jean Baudrillard in 1970 made his reading of pop and consumption clear: it was the end of the modernist avant-garde, a ‘total integration’ of the artwork into the political economy of the commodity-sign’.[24] Sots-art used many of the same procedures as pop, not least the appropriation of the official imagery that was central to the propaganda apparatus. Yet such works could hardly be absorbed in the same manner. Those made by Komar and Melamid, Pinczehelyi and Otašević maintained a cool distance when power required eagerness; and offered ambivalence when official culture called for commitment.

[1] See Laura J. Hoptman and Tomáš Pospiszyl (eds.), Primary Documents: A Sourcebook for Eastern and Central European Art Since the 1950s, New York 2002, pp.65–77.

[2] Jutta Scherrer, ‘“To Catch Up and Overtake” the West: Soviet Discourse on Socialist Competition’, in Katalin Miklóssy and Melanie Ilic (eds.), Competition in Socialist Society, London 2014, p.11.

[3] See, for instance, Mikhail Alexandrovich Lifshitz and Lidija Jakovlevna Rejngardt, Krizis bezobrazija. Ot kubizma k pop-art, Moscow 1968; Viktor Sibirjakov, Pop-art i paradoksy modernizma, Moscow 1969; M. Kuz’mina, ‘“Pop-art” in the Anthology’, Modernizm, Moscow 1973.

[4] See, for instance, Iurii Gerchuk, ‘The Aesthetics of Everyday Life in the Khrushchev Thaw in the USSR (1954–1964)’, in David Crowley and Susan Reid (eds.), Style and Socialism, Oxford 2002, pp.81–96.

[5] See Jindřich Chalupecký, Umění dnes, Prague 1966; Urszula Czartoryska, Od Pop-Artu do Sztuki Konceptualnej, Warsaw 1972.

[6] Chalupecký 1966, p.126.

[7] See Boris Kelemen (ed.), Pop Art, exh. cat., Galerija Suvremene Umjetnosti, Zagreb, March 1966.

[8] Michael L. Krenn, Fall-out Shelters for the Human Spirit: American Art and the Cold War, Chapel Hill, North Carolina 2005.

[9] Lakner described witnessing Rauschenberg’s works in the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennial in 1964 as being like a blow to the head. Lakner cited by Péter Sinkovits, ‘Progresszív álmok: beszélgetés Lakner Lászlóval’, Új művészet, vol.16, no. 4 2005, pp.4–7.

[10] See Sirji Helme, Popkunst Forever. Eesti popkunst 1960. ja 1970. aastate vahetusel, Tallinn 2010.

[11] Piotr Piotrowski, In the Shadow of Yalta: Art and the Avant-garde in Eastern Europe, 1945–1989, London 2011, pp.61–105.

[12] See Claus Groh, Aktuelle Kunst in Osteuropa, Koln 1972.

[13] János Major cited by Anik Cs. Asztalos (Éva Körner), ‘No isms in Hungary’, Studio International, March 1974, pp.105–11.

[14] Matthew Jesse Jackson, The Experimental Group: Ilya Kabakov, Moscow Conceptualism, Soviet Avant-Gardes, Chicago and London 2010, pp.69–70.

[15] See David Crowley and Susan E. Reid, ‘Introduction’, in Pleasures in Socialism. Leisure and Luxury in the Eastern Bloc, Evanston, Illinois, pp.3–51.

[16] Mieczysław Porębski, Ikonosfera, Warsaw 1972.

[17] Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, trans. John Fullerton and Paul Sieveking, London 1979, p.36.

[18] Urszula Czartoryska, ‘“Kronika” Andy’ego Warhola’ (1965), in Pisma Urszuli Czartoryskiej: perspektywy historyczne, ed. Leszek Brogowski, Gdańsk 2006, p.155.

[19] Czartoryska (1965) cited by Jerzy Kossak, in Dylematy Kultury Masowej, Warsaw 1966, p.97.

[20] Václav Havel ‘The Power of the Powerless’ (1978), in John Keane (ed.), The Power of the Powerless. Citizens Against the State in Central-Eastern Europe, trans. Paul Wilson, London 2009, p.15.

[21] Aleš Erjavec, ‘Introduction’, in Postmodernism and the Postsocialist Condition: Politicized Art Under Late Socialism, Berkeley, CA 2003, p.37.

[22] Beke cited by Klara Kemp-Welch, in Antipolitics in Central European Art: Reticence as Dissidence under Post-Totalitarian Rule 1956–1989, London 2014, p.163.

[23] See Branislav Dimitrijević, ‘DIY POP: Artistic Craftsmanship of Dušan Otašević’, in Dušan Otašević – popmodernizam/popmodernism. Retrospektivna izložba 1965–2003, exh. cat., Muzej savremene umetnosti, Belgrade October–December 2003, p.112.

[24] Jean Baudrillard cited by Hal Foster, The Return of the Real: The Avant-garde at the End of the Century, Boston, MA 1996, p.128.