Message! Submit a message! Bring a message! Carry a message through the tumult! Not to look back once, to run across an immensely sharp summit, carry a message, bring it, for god’s sake, on time, and still undistorted, to run ever faster, bring it fresh, bring it and fall to the ground, that is all.
—Ivan Diviš, Teorie spolehlivosti
This essay presents — albeit more as a sketch — one of the topics I consider important when considering some European cultural activities of the 1990s. It is more contextual and associative than documentary, and touches on a number of topics and fields, such as technology, semantics, social relations, infection, immunity, cultural stereotypes and communication networks. It is a far from sentimental reappraisal of long-concluded stories — today largely forgotten — or of mere incidents taken from archives and dusted off (for example, as part of this year’s Transmediale in Berlin). 1
I would like to thank those who have had the patience to read this work-in-progress, and have offered critical points and inspirational information: Dušan Barok, Martin Zet, Ondřej Vavrečka, Radka Schmelzová, and others.
I admit to a certain attempt at revision, as the established interpretation and reflection of the “little history” of the (Czechoslovakian) refurbishment of state-controlled surveillance capitalism towards market capitalism often seems unsatisfactory to me: the transition from a “closed” to an “open” society2, the shift from shared poverty and a state of need towards “surplus” and waste, from “de-nationalization” towards privatization3; these are often missing the proper context. Maybe that is because this decade is rarely analyzed more deeply or impartially.4
The question is: To what degree can these rather marginal, fringe, artistic and “pop-cultural” initiatives, labeled as “independent” or “non-commercial” truly be called “independent” or indeed “autonomous”?5 What, from today’s perspective, does the term “autonomous” mean? The various initiatives, the cultural centers, media labs, “anti-institutional” and non-governmental projects, artistic collectives (which were a thorn in the side of the neo-liberal wing of the then-contemporary economic forces), did they really spring up and close down of their own free will, by their own “decision”? Or was there also the interplay of circumstances? To what degree were the communities and collectives which served as intersections of, often opposing, economic and political forces and motives premeditated and constructed?
The seismic upheavals in the fall and winter of 1989 resonated across Europe in mutually connected, vertically and horizontally strengthening and fading signals. Some spread from east to west, some went the other way; some from north to south, from underground centers of dissent to official structures, sometimes vice versa. At the same time, a discussion raged on the geopolitical and ideological contours of how to define the new situation of “central” or “eastern” Europe. Are the Baltic states in the same (cultural) sphere as regions like Romania or Albania? What are the connections and what values are shared among Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, considering that the fall of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy had happened some 70 years previously? Is it even possible, after 30 years, to write a report on the artistic collectives and cultural networks which usually did not survive this decade of transformation? Can one find a common feature which would point to the strategies and motivations which might differ from those parallel networks where people used to meet, and where they would discuss the environment, humanitarian aid, rock music, religion, tramping, or other practices?6
Patchworks, Networks and Globalization
Patchwork, or patching is “a traditional hand-crafting technique which usually consists in the mechanical linking of smaller, variously colored pieces of cloth into a larger whole, so that geometrical patterns are created.” Patching is a technique similar to knitting and sewing, and people most likely started practicing it 40,000 years ago. It is in that time frame that we find archeological remains of plant fibers which were used to sew together pieces of animal skin or cloth. The invention of the needle and thread is predicated on the specific anatomy of the hand, its fine motor skills, as well as cognitive abilities such as imagination, causal thinking, combining formerly separate parts into a new whole. The technology of montage, connection, stitching, knitting, weaving, or crocheting can be found in almost all traditional agricultural societies. Apart from cooking, baking, fermentation and other forms of food processing, tinkering, metallurgy and agriculture, patching was in place at the dawn of modern industrial society.7
The term “networking” is usually a term used in management. It mostly denotes the methods and know-how necessary for founding and developing companies, meaning it has to do with commercial tactics and marketing. It uses the theory and practice of the sociological and economic sciences and we often see it employed as a strategic tool in team building or knowledge management. More generally, networking touches on interpersonal relationships and communication, social, psychological, as well as cultural and economic structures, formations and strategies. Social networking is increasingly part of information and communication technologies and, with the advent of the internet and globalization, the level of “networking” is at a point where “inhuman” entities, such as bots or algorithms are becoming integral to it. They are also most probably becoming ever more dominant. In tandem with militarized media, the “autonomous,” self-regulating technologies and markets are inconspicuously pushing civic society to the sidelines, “paralyzing our ability to think constructively, to make meaningful connections and to act with intent. As if civilization itself reached the threshold of extinction, as if we lacked the collective will and coordination necessary to solve fundamental life questions asking about the very survival of humanity,” writes media theorist Douglas Rushkoff in his Manifesto of 2019.8
Network theory was certainly a hot topic in the late 1980s and early 1990s, regardless of whether they were communication, social, or neural networks; commercial, control, or power networks, closed or discrete networks, chaotic or organized. In the post-war fractured world (which was however increasingly permeated and connected by a mesh of journalistic, energetic, informational and gradually electronic networks and communication systems) networks had ambiguous connotations from their beginning. Is it perhaps because we had become parts of mirroring, antagonistic systems: worlds which were closely connected and mutually dependent? It was due to the anxiety and the drive to achieve a fragile equilibrium of military capital and nuclear weapons. From the mid-20th century, ideas of a universalist re-connection of everything and everyone with everything and everyone else under the banner of one victorious economic system made a periodic return. It might be that the ascendant maxim of interconnection will not only lead to singularity and the end of history, but will also increase instability and open the possibility of collapse. It might at least pose a threat to personal rights, such as privacy and other features of a civil society. The nightmares of the future as prophesied in the 1950s by Ray Bradburry and Philip K. Dick have, with the 2013 testimony of Edward Snowden, become all too real.
Thinking “the network” along with the research done on transformation has, in contemporary vocabulary, come to be preferred over terms such a structure, paradigm, or system. Even before the advent of Web 2.0 and the reign of the “anti-social network,” the network has shown itself to be latently ubiquitous, and not only in the sphere of contemporary art and globalized culture.9
The theory of networks and agents and the theory of parasites
A good example can be found in the popular, albeit criticized, conception of the so-called Actor Network Theory (or ANT for short). This is a materially-semiotic theory developed by three sociologists — Bruno Latour, Michel Callon and John Law, which they formulated as part of their research at the Parisian Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation. The authors adopted a generally methodological or epistemological frame for sociology, post-structuralism, general systems theory, texts of Michel Serres, Deleuze and Guattari (Assemblage theory) and other sources. ANT is a hybrid network constituted by all active nodes. It connects various artificial and natural elements — actors can be organic and cultural elements, as well as human, machine, institutional, animal, plant, food or resource-based. Each one of the actors/agents has an equal value for the whole. Communication or cooperation take place in relative stability, dynamic symbiosis, but only until the point when one of the actors disappears, dies off, or another actor appears. This brings tension and turbulence to the network which can lead to growth, debilitation, dissolution or collapse. The reason can be, for example, the collapse of a communication (telephone) network, malfunction of a military, control, commercial or banking system, the imposition of an unknown infection, parasite, virus, or the integration of a new — for example communication — platform (like the advent of electronic networks and their impact on the transformation of communication and commercial systems in the latter half of the 1980s). MacLuhan’s ideas about the impact of emergent technologies (for example of communication networks) which determine the economic, social and cultural relations, patterns and strategies — including the functioning of art institutions, artists and artefacts — are still relevant today, 70 years after their initial formulation.10
If we apply the concept of ANT to the sphere of “unofficial’ culture, or “artistically autonomous” happenings which took place around the same time as the fundamental upheavals in the region of central and eastern Europe, we can find a number of correlations in the increasing coverage of satellite TV (an assemblage of hardware, economic, symbolic and value formations such as culture and propaganda), the largely available apparatuses of data storage (audio tapes, VHS, video recorders) and technologies of copying and distributing texts (xerox).11 On the other hand, there was the formula of the censorship/surveillance system. We can also find signs of the “mysterious” or dark network in the workings of the surveillance/police state, which exhibits a complementary connection between the visible and hidden/discrete formations and agents which (just like in the case of the television network which connects the signal and the broadcast and receiving technologies) permeated both the public and the private spheres.
According to Michel Serres, the biological metaphor of the parasite was one of the first modes of human communication and excommunication.12 The term “parasite” comes from the Greek para sitos — “to sit next to,” and in Czech and other languages it has a similar, tripartite meaning: an animal which feeds on or from the body of another animal, a slothful person living off the spoils of others, and noise in the decoding of a signal. The parasite lives from the body of the host, either on the inside or outside, and is a burden on its host, but only to a degree, as its existence relies on the host’s survival. Parasitic life strategies allow for long-term co-existence, and often a feedback loop is formed, so that the parasite provides some type of reciprocal service, establishing exchange — symbiosis. Parasites live from the remnants of other parasites. According to Serres, culture, art and language show certain signs of parasitism. The parasite creates disequilibrium in the system network, bringing disorder, chaos, which in turn breeds a more complex form of order. The parasite becomes the initiator of something new, something which is at first regarded as alien, subversive or disruptive. Parasitic (or pirate) strategies are complicit with the art of discovering novelty: Ars Inventiendi which, for Serres, constitutes the very essence of philosophy and art.13
In 1967, two authors of the Fluxus movement, Robert Filliou and George Brecht — much like the Situationists, or later media activists of the 1990s — thought that the network is “eternal.” They adopted the practices of camouflage and the strategies of mass media, advertisement and commercial corporations, despite the fact that their aims were socially and politically very different. Geert Lovink, one of the activists and theorists of the early 1990s who started to articulate the essence and sense of autonomous, free media, has recently become much more skeptical towards networks. The threat of a global network, a single Web, is nowadays interpreted in a much more realistic and gloomy light.14
What was the situation of communication networks in the Czech Republic in the early 1990s? The first attempts at connection took place in the fall months of 1991 at Charles University. The line led from Prague (through the Czech Technical University) to an internet node located in Linz. Our Republic was officially connected to the internet on February 2, 1992 at the Czech Technical University. In 1991, the company Econnect was founded for a number of ecological initiatives around the Zelený kruh. Apart from the academic network, Econnect was among the first providers of access to the net. In 1991, Tim Berners-Lee, in collaboration with a team of colleagues, proposed a coding language for creating web sites (HTML, or Hypertext Markup Language) and defined the HTTP protocol for transmitting websites through the internet (Hypertext Transfer Protocol). Berners-Lee also became the creator of the NEXUS program which was used to edit and browse web sites. The original proposals for naming the web were “Mine of Information” or “Information Mesh,” but ultimately the “World Wide Web” won out, and its services were provided free of charge. In April of 1993 — two years after launching the service — the Austrian curator Peter Weibel addressed the phenomenon of the web as the main topic of a festival of electronic culture: “Welcome to the Wired World”. In the introductory text, Weibel writes: “The postmodern society is based on information. No more the dynamics of mechanical machines but the exchange of data in the network of information machines supports the social operating system. Every day billions of humans communicate billions of massages via a global network which is constituted of telephone, fax, picture phone, mobile telephone, GPS (Global Positioning System), public access terminals, radio, pagers, TV, ISDN data communication, cable nets, cable TV, mailbox, e-mail, global computer networks like Internet, etc. We don’t live anymore only in streets and houses, but also in cable channels and telegraph wires, in fax machines and global digital networks.” But the distribution of information in mass media can also become a component of control and a source of optimizing strategies of power. Data opens critical questions about the dogmas and myths of post-modern information society.15
I mention Latour’s Actor-Network Theory because it seems a fitting metaphor to frame the story of the birth, growth and dismantling of various NGOs, non-commercial, and other “independent” artistic initiatives in central Europe, most importantly between the years 1990 and 2000. I will try to show this using the example of the Hermit Foundation and the Center for Metamedia Plasy. I depart from the assumption that it was not only the personal motivation of myself and other involved initiators, but also the social-economic circumstances of the times, and the conditions, impulses, available technologies, time, space and the possibility of crossing borders. That is the amalgam of conditions for all the “actors” which rather became witnesses to the expected and feared disappearance of a long-riven and unknown world. Other factors, such as the chaotic state of the planned economy, the hibernation of the surveillance structures and the absence of a state-level cultural politics also played their part.
The moment of mimesis, or the intuitive ability to distinguish, interpret, appropriate, transplant, evaluate or “translate” the foreign cultural templates, strategies and conditions was also important.16 A slightly de-mythologizing approach can uncover determinative relationships among the art histories and cultures as they were found in the regions. They might also reflect the current discussions on colonialism, or “self-colonialism,” in art, including the art of central Europe.17
During the organization of the auditory, visual and textual archive of the Hermit Foundation and the Center for Metamedia Plasy — as the project was paradoxically called — I kept encountering the idea, whether the name itself might not be hiding a subversive kernel, possessing a “diabolical machine” ticking away towards its self-detonation. What role could the foolish idea of hermitage have played in the project’s gradual extinction?
The concrete idea and offer were drafted in the winter of 1991 and the spring of 1992, at two geopolitically and culturally distant places: in the abandoned buildings of the central European former monastery of Plasy, and the 900-km distant shores of northern Europe, in Amsterdam. The genealogy of the idea, which at that time was still sketchy, was much older but the uncertain, grim, nomadic, homeless zeitgeist of then-contemporary Europe, with its unexpected outcome of 1989, certainly played a part. Was it a concoction of romantic dreaming about art, community, friendship and collectivism mixed with a dose of reality?18 On the one hand, the situation in the diaspora, the anxiety from a possible nuclear conflict of the great powers, feelings of uprootedness and alienation, and on the other hand the unclear idea about what all can be done in derelict, abandoned Baroque buildings, “far from the madding crowd” and far from centers of the “art world.”
Looking back at the annals of case studies (which rarely exist), it might seem that most “autonomous” cultural projects share one feature: only a few were created in isolation, but were rather connected and maintained through personal, communicational and economic ties and links, providing each other with a network of nutrients. It is important that, together with technologies of communication and “excommunication”, the political-economic landscape has changed: from interviews with physical, stable networks such as magazines, books, and other publications, telephone wires, post services, vinyl distribution and magnetic tapes adapted to electronic, digital networks, Bulletin Board Systems and web sites.19
The authors of the provocative study Fame as an Illusion of Creativity published in 2018 write that social intelligence and a richness of social relationships was more important for the success of select European and American innovators of the first two decades of the 20th century than – as might be expected — their immanent artistic quality or creativity.20
It is true that subjectively I considered the residence, meeting and communion of all those hundreds of guests who frequented Plasy over the span of almost 10 years more important than the festival, symposia, exhibitions and concerts themselves. Self-indulgence certainly played a part in this, because him who invited all of them to the magical place of the Plasy monastery somehow became somehow important himself. But as time went by, I found myself thinking the heretic thought that if someone doesn’t come and replace me in the position of the person who makes the next year’s event happen, I will just drop and quit everything. And eventually, that is what, in a way, happened.