Recycling, connecting, rebelling – How we do it in Central-Eastern-Europe
By Anna Tudos
[18 min read]
The Korong is an old building toy, probably from the 60’s or 70’s. Colorful
plastic discs could be attached together at the slits around the edges. The
options to build things are quite limited, that might explain why its old
packaging didn’t contain any instructions or examples (like Lego does). It
simply said ‘KORONG építőjáték’ (‘DISC - building toy’) on the side.
Furthermore, the text reads, ‘The product helps to improve hand dexterity and
imagination of children. A variety of fun things can be built with it. It offers a
real creative pastime.’
If I want to be honest, this modular game has its limits. You can try to build an
elephant, but most likely you’ll end up with something that looks like a pile of
broken Frisbees. However, the game really becomes interesting when you
have to make sense of this complicated mess. Isn’t this how play should
work? By copying, experimenting, failing, trying again, ending up with
something unique? Preparing for life in the adult world includes experimenting
with alternative, possible scenarios, maybe even future scenarios. Following
this analogy, we can compare modern and contemporary playgrounds: the
slick steel tubes, elementary colours and geometrical structures of the 60’s,
70s and 80’s could serve as anything with a bit of imagination; a pirate ship, a
gym, even an elephant, if you wish. On the other hand, contemporary
figurative play equipment might not always offer the same freedom. The metal
or plastic structures of past play objects, including the Korong discs, might be
a bit plain but they’re robust (they can survive for decades with the correct
care), modular and stimulating.
The shape of the discs is also of interest. The impossibility of building with circulars discs is compensated with the almost agressive cuts in them that enable them to slide together. Each angle offers a new possibility but as the construction grows in fragility, it gets more complex. In 2018, I shared my obsession of the circle shape with Cedric Tai, the curator of Over Over Over:
’ (...) It (the circle) is my abstract lucky charm, applicable to a given situation and providing constant food for thought. A cycle. A dance. An architectural structure. A roundabout.
When we think of a circle made of humans, we think of a perspective evenly spread, a flat hierarchy. The circle is a commonly used defence set-up in children’s games or war. Elephants, when attacked, organize themselves in a circle facing outwards. The equality of the circle participants can be questioned by looking at who remains outside. In Hungary, where democratic values are contested and culture is highly politicized, the contemporary art scene has been experimenting with various models of operating. Local dialogues and discussions around how to keep professionalism, avoid censorship and artistic exploitation are becoming increasingly relevant. The Hungarian, Czech, Polish, and Central Eastern European perspective will very likely soon become a resource for other countries finding themselves in similar situations.’
Since 2018, the world has changed quite a bit, and conservative cultural policies have been adopted by other Central-Eastern European countries. In the light of events in Spring 2020, my conviction is that instead of remaining as individual building discs, we, as art professionals, must find our connecting bonds, just like in the toy model, to be able to connect and support each other. This leads us to consider what kind of practices we regard as inspirational.
In Poland, the Catholic Church still has significant political power, influencing ideological campaigns and politicians. During the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic homophobia has risen to a never-seen-before level. ‘LGBT-free zones’, local municipalities, which adopted discriminative resolutions have now taken over a third of the country. The crisis was also exploited as an opportunity to pass abortion law reforms. In the last run of elections, political parties (including PiS) want the church to encourage their following to vote, therefore the abortion bill has been rushed through the parliament while no one can protest.1
(Similar acts were carried out by the Hungarian government, pushing through controversial bills to make certain sensitive documents are classified during the state of emergency.)2
A positive example is explained by artist Diana Lelolek who described how people decided to look for loopholes in the lockdown rules to allow them to protest in Poland. The shop next to the parliament building was identified as a public space where protesters could hold placards while waiting in line or install a ‘speaker protest’. This involved recording a hundred women, men and children shouting “Fight the virus, not women” [“Walczcie z wirusem, nie z kobietami”] among other, popular slogans and playing them from speakers in the shop on the day of the vote.3
Artist and activist Karol Radziszewski, founder of DIK Fagazine, explains more about historical narratives, ’I grew up as communism gave way to turbocapitalism. I’m really aware of how the past is constructed and that the way they teach us history is not neutral. In 2015, I decided to summarize all of this research into the Queer Archives Institute, which involves LGBT artists, activists, academics across the post-Soviet countries.’4
His archive and
magazine are important resources that contrast the idea of an ’LGBT-free’
Moving on to the art world, let’s examine the case of the Slovak National Gallery. A major part of their space has been continuously unavailable or conflicted for the past 10 years,5
and with funding being cut too, they were in an unfortunate state. However, the outstanding professionals working there confronted the challenge instead of minimizing the activities. Alexandra Kusá, the director of SNG proved to be a strong leader with a vision, who managed to devise flexible solutions, such as building an online gallery tool, working with architects to design the new ’non-permanent’ exhibition in the limited space.6
‘Poland abortion: Protesters against ban defy coronavirus lockdown’, BBC News, April 2020, Link2.
‘Hungarian government to end Orbán's rule-by-decree legislation’, Shaun Walker, The Guardian, May 2020, Link3.
‘Brave new world. How will art look like after COVID-19? An interview with Diana Lelonek’, Jan Elantkowski, Slow Life. Radical Practices of the everyday. exhibition, Ludwig Museum, June 2020, Link4.
[An image of the speaker protest]
[Karol Radziszewski’s publication]
[Alexandra Kusá at the construction of the Slovak National Gallery]
‘It’s Really Dangerous’: Poland’s Anti-LGBT Culture War’, Oliver Basciano, ArtReview, June 2020, Link5.
‘Reconstruction begins on Slovak National Gallery’, Elise Morton, The Calvert Journal, Febr 2016, Link6.
‘Exhibition review: The Slovak National Gallery’s Non-Permanent Exhibition’, Magdalena Łanuszka, Journal of the Northern Renaissance (JNR), Sept 2017, Link
SNG also navigated not-so-impressed politicians successfully, when
proposing to present art that is considered controversial given the context in
which it emerged eg.
Broken Song, Fine Art in the Times of Stalin’s Cultural Practice 1948-1956
(2012). This show is one in a series of exhibitions
presenting art that is seldom discussed, such as works realised under fascist
rule or socialist realist works. By presenting these pieces the gaps in art history fill up and questions surrounding who defines what art is (political
power, critics, their afterlife?), or what activist art is can be discussed.
In the Czech Republic, the discourse on intensifying gentrification and tourism
overlaps with art professionals trying to move away from the mainstream
scenes and setting up their own initiatives in suburban, or even remote
countryside locations. This is not done with the hope of reviving failed utopias
of socially engaged art but more as a radical act – either to try to do nothing or
to try other, less controlled, forms of building.
One example to highlight is Nová Perla, an in-progress space for experimentation at a town that serves a gateway to the Bohemian Switzerland National Park and is therefore usually regarded as a tourist destination. However, there are more underlying aspects to local history (they describe the area as the Czecz Mordor), and that’s something Nová Perla would like to take into consideration. Their slogans include independency, self-sufficiency and thirst for freedom. The venue, an abandoned thread-factory, will house a gallery, a theatre and a cinema, a publishing and printing house, a library and a bookstore with a park and a garden. ’ Nová Perla is a revolution of an example. It is a vision growing out of dreams, gifts and efforts of the last decades, of thousands of hours of voluntary work of friends and supporters. Nová Perla is bound to never give up.’7
In Hungary, questions of precariousness and censorship tend to take a darker tone. As news stories continuously report on how Victor Orban slowly but steadily is building his totalitarian empire, the art scene in Budapest has been adjusting to the new rules of the game.78
I don’t want to go into too
many sad details, I rather choose to quote Adam Mazur, editor of BLOK
Magazine, who revealed two main threads of artists’ attitudes towards politics:
the majority of the younger generation of artists are being completely
apolitical in their work and the older generation is too busy trying to make
it work, juggling with multiple professions, jobs, and/or actively pursuing
international opportunities. A few of them are torn between life abroad and
their home in Hungary. One way to tackle the nationalist obsession with
’Hungarianness’, apart from keeping a distance from it, is through
humour and irony, ridiculing by overdoing. Artists working in this manner
include Lőrinc Borsos, Szabolcs Kisspál, the gang of the Hungarofuturists,
as well as Dominika Trapp (with her band, Peasants in the Atmosphere). As
Mazur writes: ‘she began to engage with folk art, which is held up in
opposition to contemporary work by ideologists in circles close to Orbán.
The theory is that traditional folk art will
counter the art ‘dragged in’ from the West by the liberal elites. It is to be the
foundation and mainstay of Hungarianness. So Trapp decided to combine
climate activism and political engagement by appropriating the discourse of
the pro-government ideologists.
(...) In the face of planetary catastrophe, Orban’s regime seems a trivial matter and Trapp is focused not so much on activism as on a kind of grief, of mourning, as if the end of the world has already come. (...)
Perhaps the ways of acting and thinking which lie dormant in traditional culture, along with long-forgotten technologies and tools, will make survival possible?’9
These practices show how there is a certain ambivalent relation to the past, not just on the art world, but also in wider public life. Today, our generation, never experienced the political enthusiasm of the early 2000’s, only its throwback to authoritarianism. We might want to look forward but we must still deal with our collective heritage – the positive and negative aspects intertwined. If we are looking for positive practices, artist voices are an important resource – they can make us laugh about our misery, they can give us back our hope in humanity and creativity and they can start to roll the ball of change. We see museums actively discussing art made in conflicted historical contexts, apolitical artists who use whatever is available to them to create, or artists who reveal hidden histories even at the price of putting themselves on the spot. Art provides tools for experimentation and coming up with alternatives, it’s leaning onto the past but it aims to the future.
If at this point, we would like to return to our plastic discs, we hit a wall of dilemmas. Firstly, I am not sure these were actually the product of the USSR, but these and similar cheap to produce, colourful, plastic toys flooded the Soviet Bloc as part of the kul’ttovary mission (1958), to bring culture into the Soviet home. Meaning traditional toys made of wood, depicting agrarian domestic life were replaced by toys with didactic value that supported social development, like blocks and puzzles. The designs stressed that the child develops through play, therefore the toys should be practical and educational.10
The mass production of plastic from the ‘50s onwards made it
possible that while quantities of toys went up, prices came down, and well, so
did the quality too. Most of the toys were quite badly executed and not
particularly entertaining. As there were not many alternatives, there was no
push from the consumers either for more elaborate toys.
‘Hybrid Regime. On the Visual Arts Scene in Budapest’, Adam Mazur, Artportal / East Art Mags, Febr 2020, Link10.
’50 Shades of Precariousness. A report on culture in provincial Hungary’, Zuzana Jakalová, Artportal / East Art Mags, Jan 2020, Link
Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design, Edited by Michael Idov, Contribution by Gary Shteyngart, Lara Vapnyar, Boris Kachka, Bela Shayevich, Rizzoli, 201111.
Design History beyond the canon, Edited by Jennifer Kaufmann-Buhler, Victoria Rose Pass, Christopher Wilson, Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019, pp.29.
With conservative policies and authoritarian politicians ruining our hopes for a
better or normal future, we should sort out our historical baggage, decide on
which strategies could be reused and what we should leave behind.
Attacks on the sovereignty of art, on LGBT identities, on human rights or on
our environment can motivate us to come up with alternative or recycled
methods, practices and acts of solidarity. If we continue to let our voices be
heard and hear each other out, we can become discs attached to each other.
Even if the final sculpture seems shaky and the elements have dust on them
from the last century, it is worth creating new structures with them and looking
forward to the future even if it seems impossible.
- Anna Tudos
About the Author:
Anna Tudos is a curator and researcher based between Glasgow, UK and Budapest, Hungary. After attending the Hungarian University of fine Arts she graduated from the MLitt Curatorial Pratice course at Glasgow School of Art. Her main research topics relate to hidden histories, East-West relations and the intangible heritage of modernist architecture, including prefabricated housing and experimental playground structures.