Notes from the Underground. Art and Alternative Music in Eastern Europe 1968-1994
ms², ul. Ogrodowa 19
This exhibition explored the close and often dynamic relationship between visual artists and musicians in Eastern Europe under communist rule. In the 1970s, stages became settings throughout the world for elaborate light shows, outlandish props and theatrical costumes. Entire fashions were generated from the ‘look’ of performers. And, later, in the 1980s, the music video provided a new platform for visual expression. After dismissing Western pop culture as propaganda in the early years of the Cold War, each Eastern European state set about establishing its own jazz, pop and rock scenes with compliant stars, controlled venues and censored music magazines.
But the alliance between art and music went much deeper than these state-managed spectacles. The vibrant cultures that formed at the cross-roads of art and music subscribed – often naively – to the idea that they presented an alternative to mainstream tastes or even social formations. Ostensibly insignificant matters like styles of dress or speech were tangible ways of marking difference in the world. In this sense, rock, and later punk and new wave were as much sensibilities as musical genres and, as such, stimulated much innovative visual art, film and literature as well as idiosyncratic ways of living. Sometimes the alliance between art and music was so close as to draw no distinction between the two zones. Aktualní umĕní, for instance, was founded as an artistic group by Milan Knížák and others in Prague in the mid 1960s, and became, variously, a samizdat (self published magazine), a rock group, a commune and a mode of dressing. Aktual aspired, like the historic avant-garde of the 1920s, to collapse the distinction between art and life.
Two decades later, Ornament & Verbrechen [Ornament and Crime] was formed by brothers Ronald and Robert Lippok in the German Democratic Republic, borrowing their name from a celebrated essay by the Austrian architect Adolf Loos. With a changing line-up of different visual artists, sound artists and musicians and highly eclectic instrumentation, the group was more like a concept than a band. Aktual and Ornament & Verbrechen had their musical equivalents on the other side of the so called Iron Curtain: in one sense this is unsurprising, rock and new wave music travelled so fast and so far that it was the most successful internationalism in the twentieth century. But unlike the artists in the ‘underground’ scenes of the West that liked to romanticise their outsiderism, the existence of these art-rockers in Eastern Europe was constrained by forms of censorship and command in direct and all-too concrete ways.
The term ‘underground’ suggests conspiracy and rebellion (particularly in those parts of Eastern Europe like Poland with a long and active tradition of opposition to illegitimate power). But in the late 1960s it came to carry associations with attempts to live differently on both sides of the East/West divide. This took various forms including the spread of communes in which a lifestyle presented itself a critique of technocratic modernity and the bourgeois family; and in the celebration of desires and instincts that had been demonised or even criminalised, not least homosexuality. In Eastern Europe, the desire to live and act outside state regulation was evident in the occupation of marginal spaces in which to produce and disseminate culture that escaped direct censorship and control. Exhibitions and performances in apartments, in the countryside, student clubs, abandoned chapels and active churches expressed a deep desire for autonomy. The first ‘rave’ club in the Soviet Union took place in the Leningrad Auditorium in the late 1980s when two DJs known as the Novye Kompozitory [New Composers] took over the Science Fiction society there. The desire for autonomy was also found in the production of samizdat books and journals, and magnitizdat tape recordings from the 1960s onwards. In the 1980s new audio-visual technologies crossed the so-called Iron Curtain that allowed enterprising figures to set up cassette labels and to issue ‘Pirate Television’ programmes on VHS tapes.
‘Notes from the Underground’ was organized by themes rather than by geography to highlight common sensibilities across the region. Even though direct and personal exchanges between artists and musicians living in both the Eastern Bloc and the former Yugoslavia were rare, the pressures and limitations which were common to all living under communist rule appears to have stimulated a kindred resourcefulness and creativity, as well as a widespread taste for absurdity and irony. A deep attraction to primivitism – in the USSR, Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia around 1980 – might have been stimulated by punk but it carried a special charge when made by citizens of the societies which claimed to be progressive and scientific. Many of the works on display in this exhibition – hand-modified 8mm films and video art made by ‘sampling’ official broadcasts; sounding sculptures and improvised instruments; self-published fanzines and cassettes – were exhibited for the first time since they were made. Falling in the gap between art history and musicology, they have enjoyed little attention from historians and critics. ‘Notes from the Underground’ provided an opportunity to see them in a fresh light.
Featuring works of the following artists: AG. Geige, Aktual, Autoperforationsartisten, A.E. Bizottság, Andrzej Bieżan, Gábor Bódy, Borghesia, Micha Brendel, Frank Bretschneider, Wojciech Bruszewski, Vladislav Burda, Ladislav Chocholoušek, Sergey Chernov, Robert Conrad, György Galántai, Marina Gržinić & Aina Šmid, Wiktor Gutt & Waldemar Raniszewski, Kilhets, Tamás Király, Leszek Knaflewski, Milan Knížák, Bohdan Kosiński, Marko Kovačič, (E-E) Evgenij Kozlov, Sergey Kuryokhin, KwieKulik, Katalin Ladik, Helge Leiberg, Yuris Lesnik, Via Lewandowsky, Luxus, Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe, Davorin Marc, Andrzej Mitan, New Composers, Timur Novikov, Ornament & Verbrechen, Post Ars, Praffdata, NSRD, OHO, Józef Robakowski, Tohm di Roes, Piotr Rypson, Jan Ságl, Zorka Ságlová, Cornelia Schleime, Sergey Sholokhov, Tomasz Sikorski, Joanna Stingray, Tibor Szemző, Sergey Solovyov, Vladimir Tarasov, Michał Tarkowski, Totart, András Wahorn, Ramona Welsh, Wspólnota Leeeżeć, Vágtázó Halottkémek, János Xantus, Krzysztof Zarębski, Ziemia Mindel Würm, Zuzu-Vető
Curators: David Crowley and Daniel Muzyczuk
Coordinator: Martyna Gajda