This brief outline of The Peerless Cooperative of the Holy Nurture (JSD) attempts to shed new light on the activities of this group, its programs and artistic miscellanea examined from within the realm of fine art, and seeks to establish connections with some parallel tendencies. This text is also a humble contribution to increase public awareness of the rarefied history of the Cooperative. The text was originally written by Miloš Vojtěchovský around 2008 upon the nomination of the JSD for the Jindřich Chalupecký Award (which the Cooperative ultimately did not receive) and was updated to its current form in 2017 for the Agosto Foundation Mediateka. As will be shown, the framing the Cooperative as “outsider art” or “non-art” within an context of art may result in a distortion of the values, goals and meanings of the Collective. This overview of Upsych activities is mostly preoccupied with the founding and building the Church of Upsych316a, a large-format social construction devoted purely to the worship of the Holy Scrap, which is intended for use in the cultivation of art therapy, and also the redemption of man through the gift of the imagination.
It is thus, in this domiciliation, in this house arrest, that archives take place. The dwelling, this place where they dwell permanently, marks this institutional passage from the private to the public, which does not always mean from the secret to the non-secret.…
From Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression by Jacques Derrida.
The JSD Cooperative and the ŠŠ Units (Jednotky Špružení Šmelcu / The Units of the Holy Scrap) knit together the conceptual founders and representative dignitaries – Chairman and Deputy, the brothers David and Martin Koutecký – and a loose community of “collaborators”, friends, supporters, allied art groups and fans. Both “organizations” have attained minimal-to-no fame on the Czech contemporary art scene. Perhaps that is because they operate on the boundary between art and life. As very few references to the JSD Cooperative can be found in arts literature, journals, the mass media or the press — no more in 2017 than in 2008 — most of the resources used here are drawn from the files, collections, documents and archives of the Cooperative itself — the bulk of which documents public encounters with their curious events and activities. We thus must make do with our discoveries from field research, or oral testimonies from the actors and participants themselves. 1
According to its Statutes, the JSD Cooperative was “… founded on the night of January 12, 2001 solely for the purpose of nurturing and supporting by all means the Reason and the Cause – Mr. Miláček – the Young Holy, the Greatest Artist and the Biggest Love, and for the nurturing and development of Holiness in general.” According to this story, the tool for this peculiar assortment of activities necessitated the development of an “ever-growing bureaucratic apparatus and a strong hierarchy based on numerous executive sections, departments and committees.” This focus resulted in the most ambitious achievement of the JSD: the establishment and operation of the Universal Psychiatric Church 316a (Upsych – Univerzální Psychiatrický Chrám).
The Universal Psychiatric Church is located in a small town in northeast Bohemia in a 14th-century Gothic fortress purchased from the Czech Army in 1997 and subsequently occupied by the Cooperative. Though the labyrinthine fortress was in a deplorable condition, its new owners saved it from demolition, and its four floors have gradually become the repository (and victim) of a horde of surplus found objects, debris and scrap (the etymology of this term is “scrap, useless metal, filings”); some of it rare and antique, most of it worthless; but all of which has been obsessively accumulated over the past 15 years by the JSD’s ŠŠ Units. The collection has been selected, expanded and recast with a specific purpose: to serve and fulfill the needs of approximately 40 (both fictional and “real”) tenants. Each inmate of Upsych Church is treated as a unique “psychiatric case” and each acquires a specific story transcribed into the shape and furniture of each room. The intention is to provide the “tenants” with an “alternative” to the current forms of psychiatric care. The characters in this conceptual “staged drama” have their own dedicated rooms or spaces, and their “… psychic anomalies are not viewed as malfunctions to be cured but, on the contrary, are considered as faculties worthy of cultivating.” The entire stage design of the fortress, from the ground to the attic, is carefully composed so that it reflects the current mental state of the inmates. This creates the impression of a picturesque institute, one which recalls the one in the 1973 Polish film The Hourglass Sanatorium (Sanatorium pod klepsydrą, directed by Wojciech Jerzy Has, 1973) — but, in this case, without actors.
The Church is meticulously and diligently maintained by the Cooperative (as well as the ŠŠ Units and the General Staff of the Geist — another related, but autonomous institution that secures the operation of Upsych). The occasional visitor is exposed to a neo-Merzbau architectural assemblage, a new embodiment of the House of Usher or a punk gesamtkunstwerk. But only through personal experience can one truly encounter the philosophy, eschatology, taxonomy and poetics of the JSD. 2
The vocabulary, hagiography, epiphany and idiosyncrasy of the Peerless Cooperative of the Holy Nurture suggest a variety of allusions to institutional, bureaucratic and ideological systems, including Christianity, religious syncretism, cosmology, literature, philosophy, alchemy, hermeticism, antique collecting, travelogues, modern art, architecture, cinema, theater, music, environmentalism, and the military. It combines the sacred and the mundane, Pop and underground, counter-culture and and hyper-postmodernism.
Trying to use ordinary critical reasoning to interpret and reveal the essence of the Cooperative’s methods and strategies by making recourse to the standard discourse of critique is not applicable, as their methods are complex, neo-baroque, and opaque. Although the JSD can be seen as marginal epiphenomenon in contemporary Czech art and culture, its traits, methods and attitudes offer a wealth of opportunities for interpretation and comparison with current international and local cultural environments, both explicit and implicit.3
This initial survey of a few fragments of their writings, regulations, statements and other documents offers a small sample of the Cooperative’s multilayered identity, self-mythologization and attitudes toward its own work and life. But why therefore, after 15 years, the activities of JSD and Upsych still linger beyond the interest of both the public and the professional communities?
Between Private and Public
It is said that Maurice Blanchot, the enigmatic French writer and philosopher, refused to be photographed and firmly believed that the public shouldn’t be able to recognize his face. As a result, Blanchot achieved an almost inconceivable status: he prevented his face, identity and ego from colliding with his work (Samuel Beckett or Thomas Pynchon harbor a similar shyness for being photographed or appearing in the public eye).4
Nevertheless, an internet search for images of the author locates at least 18 photographs containing Blanchot’s face among the 17,000 results for images related to him. At the dawn of the 21st century, the need to carefully preserve one’s privacy in the face of a growing, omnipresent, and expanding public domain mirrors the turbulent battle between the hidden and the exposed, between the sacred and the profane. Typing the three letters G-O-D – the global quintessence of human religious belief – into the Google search engine returns more than six million results in a sliver of time, 0.16 seconds. Confronted with a cyberspace that now permeates the planet, the traditional concepts of sacred and profane, and the private and the public are dissolving.
How does this relate to JSD and Upsych? My premise about the Cooperative is that they are neither a private nor a public body. Its membership mostly refers to general and social issues, but always through the prism of personal, “familial,” sometimes fictitious and sometimes factual narratives. The Cooperative is not part of the social habits of the contemporary art community, structured around the relationships between the producer/curator/gallerist/collector. The JSD and UPSYCH organism is instead composed of a network of friends, of individuals directly or vicariously involved or familiar with the Collective’s activities and narratives. Rather than producing and distributing artifacts, everything is devoted to “fostering and developing holiness in general.”
One of the main chapters of the Cooperative’s manifesto is a playful articulation of the “Holy” or the “Sacred” that seems to be directly inspired by the corpus of religious, mostly Catholic phraseology of the Holy Essence of God and other religious rituals. The Cooperative’s worship of its blasphemous idol (or former “guru”) “Mr. Miláček, the Young Holy, the Cause and the Reason” stems from a casual encounter with a fellow student of Milan Knížák’s studio at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. This personal contact became the source of an associative chain reaction of poetic hagiography and rites of grotesque idolatry. The core of this is based in describing the psychosocial identity, habits, creative appearance and artistic qualities of their divine Guru (whose role in the activities has gradually become less important). The result is a unique archive of observations and documents concerning the object of their wry and amusing worship.
The dramatic style of the cult of the “Holy Artist” is likewise grounded in a genuine link with the community of institutionalized religion, as well as the grotesque rituals of the art community and totalitarian systems. The style of “spiritual art” practiced today within the Catholic Church is far removed from the Cooperative’s aesthetic attitudes. In the Cooperative, the counterpart of the “Sacred and Secret” is the “Burlesque,” performed in a ludicrous and blasphemous style of the rituals and manifested in the design of the assemblages and performances. The extemporaneity of the surplus of gadgets, scenery, instruments, stage design, performances, appropriated architecture, printed matter, arrangement, costumes, etc., revolve around reversed epiphanies, hierophanies, carnival and similar Bakhtin-like narratives, all transposed into the profane, post-apocalyptic solitude of a former military base located in the grim Sudetenland.
In revealing the nature of the Cooperative’s work, we are challenged by several questions: At which point does authorship end and illusion, irony and theatricality take over? Are we witnessing genuine devotion, art and humility in the face of the transcendent, or are we instead dealing with an ironic, hebephrenic, compulsive defacement of all authorities, their myths, celebrations, and rituals? Is this some strange form of sectarian, fetishistic practice, or are we witness to a subversive grimness, similar to the heretical tradition that can be traced through the Grand Guignol, Alfred Jarry, Jaroslav Hašek, the Surrealists, Dada, and the iconoclasm of Punk?
I presume that in the case of the JSD Cooperative, the juxtaposition of the real and the ironic, of the sacred and the profane, will lead to some false assumptions. The dialectical cohesion of the serious vs. the grotesque are inseparable in the poetics and methodology of the construction of their whimsical and joyful universe. This universe consists of regular instances of ritual worship, the pseudo-fetishistic gathering and sacrificial burning of rubbish and scrap collected from the streets, the deconstruction and re-contextualization of an abundance of narrative phantasmagoria. These intertwine with the text of assemblages which represent the virtual tenants who inhabit the labyrinth-Merzbau of the Universal Psychiatric Church in their small town.
Similarly, the Cooperative’s ambivalence toward seriousness and irony is captured in the rhetoric, jargon and style of the handmade samizdat editions of reports and manifestos, decorated with photographs, inserted and found objects, accompanied by a variety of ritual costumes. These vignettes and stories are distributed among initiated readers and at the events, gatherings, and occasional expeditions of the Cooperative’s community.
If one would like to designate a basic semantic gesture, an Opera Omnia blueprint for the prolific opus of the Peerless Cooperative of the Holy Nurture, a fitting candidate might be found in the metaphor of the assemblage, or bricolage, a cluster of hybrid objets trouvés, habits and scattered mycelium of meanings, inuendos and social links. 5This artistic gesture can be described as a radical departure from the patterns of linear coherence familiar to us in the alienated channeled, machine-like grid of language and the universalist canon of modernity.
Unlike the mainstream of the contemporary Czech visual art scene, the style of the Cooperative intuitively and deliberately resists current fashions, and rejects the ‘art world’ in general. However, their idiosyncratic receptivity to different aesthetic and historical styles is all-embracing. Regardless of their penchant for the dark realm of the obscure, the anomalous, the decaying, the Gothic, the literary, and their wide range of religious inspirations, the Cooperative looks from its very nature surprisingly traditionalist, even anti-postmodernist. Although it may sound like hyperbole, such features place JSD among the Czech and international pantheon of “genuine eccentrics”, mavericks, and “true artists” in an environment otherwise fueled with trendiness and snobbism.
2008 — 2017
1. It is interesting to note that although the JSD has participated in numerous exhibitions and festivals (for instance at Školská 28 Gallery in 2007, or Four Days in Motion in 2009 and 2012, etc.) so far no one from the professional community has attempted to systematically explore, document and interpret their work within a wider cultural context. The absence of such theoretical readings prompts the author to sketch out at least some of the Cooperative’s artistic gestures, customs and meanings. ↩
2. As opposed to the affiliated organization B.K.S. (Bude konec světa) [EIN (End Is Nigh)], the JSD does not reject contact with the public but rather encourages it. ↩
3. Apart from the already-mentioned B.K.S, we may find other affiliated groups, like the now-extinct Bratrstvo (Brotherhood). A direct connection with Czech art of the 1970s may be found in the figure of prof. Zdeněk Beran, the head of the Painting IV Studio at The Prague Academy of Fine Arts, with whom David Koutecký studied, or in their contacts with the underground film maker, writer and publisher Lubomír Drožď, aka Čaroděj OZ, Blumfeld S.M., Homeless & Hungry. In the 1990s, Pavel Pepperstein, the member of the Russian artist group Medical Hermeneutics (with Jurij Leiderman) published a text on collectives and "secret" societies in Czech contemporary art in the magazine Výtvarné Umění. * ↩
4. In the arts, bricolage (French for “DIY” or “do-it-yourself”) means “the construction or creation of a work from a diverse range of things which happen to be available, or a work created by such a process.” And so a bricoleur is “a kind of handyman, who improvises technical solutions to all manner of minor repairs.” The term is frequent in different fields, including philosophy, critical theory, education, computer software, and economics. In the arts are many examples of a variety of approaches toward bricolage (or assemblage) in Dada, Surrealism, arte povera, and Fluxus; in the works of Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Cornell, Meret Oppenheim, Jean Tinguely, Josef Beuys, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Smithson, Edward Kienholz, Gordon Matta Clark, William Burroughs, Nam June Paik, George Maciunas, Yoko Ono, and Thomas Hirschhorn, and Jason Rhodes; in the music of John Cage, Pierre Schaffer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Frank Zappa; as well as in the literature of James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges and Georges Perec. According to Claude Lévi-Strauss, there can be a mythical thinking described as a kind of bricolage. Similar concepts play a role in the work of Walter Benjamin, the Situationists, and the Structuralists, especially in the semiotics and the sociology of everyday of Michel de Certeau. The related ideas of Georges Bataille, Michel Leiris and Roger Caillois on bricolage were later appropriated in the French postmodernist and deconstructivist theories of Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guttari. The subversive function of bricolage also plays a role in the texts of contemporary authors and theorists, such as W.G. Sebald, Georges Didi-Huberman, Jacques Rancière, Nick Land, Sadie Plant and Tim Morton, among others. ↩
5.“I have kept ‘living’ proof of these events. But without me, this proof can prove nothing, and I hope no one will go near it in my lifetime. Once I am dead, it will represent only the shell of an enigma, and I hope those who love me will have the courage to destroy it, without trying to learn what it means. I will give more details about this later. If these details are not there, I beg them not to plunge unexpectedly into my few secrets, or read my letters if any are found, or look at my photographs if any turn up, or above all open what is closed; I ask them to destroy everything without knowing what they are destroying.” in Maurice Blanchot’s Death Sentence (1948), https://monoskop.org/images/9/94/Blanchot_Maurice_The_Space_of_Literature.pdf ↩
Editing and Corrections: Lloyd Dunn, Ken Ganfield, Hanna Rose Shell, Vít Bohal.