Levente Polyák

Exploring exploration


It is not every day that a festival manages to accommodate the art of the contemporary community that functions primarily in the urban context and has a strain of critical impulse – without dulling its encompassing critical scene. It seems that the organisers of the renewed Budapest Autumn Festival counted on just such a challenge, if we consider the event series that they assembled, which not only occurs in present time, but to the same extent in the surrounding, living space. From the perspective of engaging with the events of the festival, the invitation extended to the e-Xplo group (from New York and Berlin) was a bull’s-eye as far as urban context is concerned: e-Xplo’s performance – taken one step away from the direct excitement of the discovery and re-introduction of urban space – examined the nature of discovery, to be exact, circulating the question of sustainability of critical and documentarist approaches.

The members of e-Xplo, Rene Gabri, Erin McGonigle and Heimo Lattner, undertook, with the aid of “local experts”, and following several weeks of Budapest reconnaissance, and the gleaning of experiences and materials, to disclose for us through multimedia bus-trips “the unknown side of the city, the cultural and social stratification of Budapest”, in the same way they had done previously in New York, London, Turin and Rotterdam. The bus-trip attempted to shake up not only our view of the city, but moreover, our fundamental attitude concerning “others” that is traceable in our own city.

The concept of the e-Xplo bus refers directly to classic methods of discovering cities as occurs with the vehicle of the bus. Typical tourist routes that use narration as mere background noise, sightseeing “for professionals” with images illustrating a central problem formulated linguistically, and “bus performances ” experienced as events or spending time in company are all brought to mind equally. The route, the windscreen that has been turned into a viewing screen, the darkened “auditorium” of the bus and the sound-stream surging from the speakers are all fundamental, reflective components of the piece. The Budapest city- tour that has been christened Something About (Revolution) Repetition simultaneously makes assertions about the space that we traverse, about the words that connect to the emerging spectacles of the city, and about the images that transform the social milieu.

The route-narrative of the sightseeing excursion often connects similar things found in the city, or as in our case, exactly to the contrary, casts light upon the fault lines and contrasts. Moszkva tér (Moscow Square), the Chain Bridge, the National Theatre, Illatos út, Népliget (People’s Park): these are not simply illuminated or darkened clichés, postcard- and anti-postcard-landscapes, but each are mythical sites of Budapest, discussed again and again. These myths operate, however, in a way that is diametrically opposed: they each describe a different city; they tell the disparate stories of wealth, history, politics, as well as poverty and violence. This multiple mesh full of contrasts is shocking, even if over the course of the route, the illusion of the “spurious coherence” of a continuous film drives us into its trap.

Confronting the images of the outside world as beheld through the windows of the bus, sounds flow from the speakers: snatches of songs, noises, interviews recorded during the preceding weeks, or citations – from texts read in English, French and Hungarian. The relation of the sounds, however, is not unambiguous to the view connected with it, i.e., to the image of the part of the city in which the bus is just passing. It is not clear-cut, what we are hearing: is it film-music that intensifies the image before us, or is it rather acoustic elements that strive to dismantle that image? There are sounds that transform the images of the social reality before us into video- clips, while others topple us from our calm contemplation of the view: instead of providing its corresponding equivalent, its counterpoint is generated: modulating, metamorphosing, displacing, decomposing the view.

The bus-trip truly presents the city as a film. Before the lights are dimmed, we are asked to switch off our mobile phones and to behave as if we were in a cinema. The film-effect already begins to work in the first seconds of our departure, as we merge into the film, and our withdrawal from the world we are affiliated with is rendered almost flawless. The notorious slums nestling between abandoned factories, Illatos út, the distant isle of “chaos”, comes into view before us as a concentrated symbol of poverty and danger, as an “Elsewhere” that serves the myth of urban diversity. Our tour is an educational safari, in which we can examine the exoticised-aestheticised objects of our desire from the secure distance creating the illusion of filmic-sensation through the window. The prostitutes lined up at the petrol station, the thugs from chaos flexing their muscles in their landrovers, the patrolling policemen searching along the railway tracks with floodlights – they are all the characters of a “live” action film, the extras of a scene realised for the benefit of the gaze of the tour-passengers: the localised, innoculated stimulants of the pleasantly thrilling sensation of danger we feel in our backbones. “Finalement aucune aventure ne se constitue directement pour nous (Finally, no adventure proceeds directly for us)”– sounds from the speakers.

And into this idyllic, here and there idyllically shocking sightseeing, is interwoven that critical voice, which attacks not only the practice of transforming the world into its image, but also denounces the self-deprecating gesture of social critique as formulated in naïve pictures. Methods for this are dislocation, the establishment of distance, or if you like, alienating effects, be they intentional or inadvertent. But when the prostitutes standing alongside the petrol station unexpectedly wave back, or the searchlight of the cops on patrol along the railway tracks hits upon the ceiling of the bus, and the gaze of the gangsters lolling about on their enormous SUV’s meets with that of the tourists: the decors come to life! For a few moments, we too are present – they also see us: we are the performance. Neither the dissolution into images, nor the dislocation is constant. Neither the illusion, nor criticism is perfect. In this sense, the e-Xplo bus-trip advances in the fissure between merging into and estrangement: it dances between the homogeneous cityscape that obscures the contrasts and the meaningful area rich in detail, working on the mapping of the distance between the language treated as homogeneous background noise and recognised in its elements, and that which provides the opportunity for critique.

The recorded texts also play a part in the game of the approaching/distancing movement of the images. Extracts of a conversation with young rappers, jabber as invented English. French as invented jabberwocky. The momentary position, amalgamation or reservation, we have assumed in relation to the images depends upon what exactly we are watching, and what we have taken notice of. Do we see conflict there, where we are being shown homogeneity? Do we recognise the language in the uniform mass that envelops us?

Tempo, tempo, tempo”, sounds the repetitive passage from László Moholy-Nagy’s Film Sketch (Filmváz) through the loudspeaker. The tempo, the rhythm, gives the modern city its dynamic; a secret organising force of a higher order, in which individual will ceases to stand autonomously. In the moving maelstrom of the crowd, people appear as mere staffage, as extras who have been divested of their names, simply geometric elements on the filmstrip. Disengagement, in both the mechanical and the visual sense. “Vicious circle. Very fast. The people thudding to the ground wobble unsteadily to their feet, only to board a train.” Machines revived to independent life. “On the roller-coaster, at the moment of the great dive, nearly everyone shuts their eyes. The camera, never. (...) This way of seeing is entirely new.” Images roused to independent life. “Tempo, tempo, tempo ”, sound the speakers, but the urban landscape beyond the windows is at variance with this: the street is mute, immobile, numbed in a trance, the only perceptible motion in it the slow swaying of the bus.

The recited scripts of Guy Debord, László Moholy-Nagy and Angelo Quattrocchi are texts that became autonomous without visual correspondents, without filmic development: “they did not lend themselves” to the process of becoming image. It is no wonder, then, if the film arbitrarily edited from the given elements of the city contradicts and disputes the images that present the city as a pure vision. The relationship established in this way between the text and image may be defined by the expression of “détournement” (aversion, deflection), which, as one of the fundamental concepts of the Situationists, primarily of the erudite social criticism of the 1950s and 60s, motivated its evocation in connection with Guy Debord’s text. The technique of dé tournement combines already existing elements into new ensembles, modified, “deflected” with the meaning of the individual elements. The Situationists often employed détournement in the context of film: the commentary subsequently appended to the film turns the meaning of the images inside-out; the layer of irony is brought to the surface of the images; the viewer is placed at a critical distance from them: the lies of the images are exposed, fashion and spectacle are dismantled to their elements, but even the representative stockpiles of fake revolution.

What we hear on the bus is Debord’s 1961 script, Critique de la séparation, his writing that battles against “institution”, the transpositions that render impossible encounter or direct experience. The history moulded to the urban space’s own model, the documentary film defining the city, the legend classifying the experiences, official information – they are all participants in the apparatus that impedes and alienates immediacy, intervention, adventure. All coherence truly is linked to the conclusiveness of the past, condemned to inactivity. Similarly to the work of memory and history, “the function of cinema is to present a false, isolated coherence[1]. The essence of Debord’s point of view is anti-representation. His texts demand the denunciation of the world concealed from images; the inversion, substitution of appearance, “fictitious life” by real life. “Everything that was direct experience has now withdrawn in a representation” [2] – thus forewarns the diagnosis, the first thesis of Debord’s masterwork, Société du spectacle (Society of Spectacle).

Separation, disengagement, appears on two levels: on the one hand, in the estrangement, the alienation between individual people, in the potential for existence in the unfamiliar quarters of the city in our direct vicinity. On the other hand, however, precisely in the exoticism of this critique, in the non-intervention, the ultimate alienation from the social world altered into images, replaced by representations.

It seems that e-Xplo, though it obviously draws inspiration from the Situationists, does not identify with them. In the context of the bus-trip, the Debord-texts invert and deviate in just the same way as the illuminated cityscapes. Questions arise: Does unmediated reality exist? Is the pre-image, essentially immediate position accessible? It is by no means a certainty that the recognition of correlations automatically renders possible the occupation of an external, critical viewpoint. Is it possible – and is it necessary – to demolish the memory of art, the conventions of communication? Is it possible to bridge the distance dividing us from direct experience?

It is possible. Whether or not it is an ironic gesture, in any case, the break for a rest in the Népliget (People’s Park) is a welcome reprise. Nearly everyone alights from the bus. Those who have slept through the entire journey finally awaken now, stretching their limbs in the light drizzle. We step down from the screen with light movements: the outside world ceases to be a film. The fact that this return, this arrival back to the ground occurs in a “wood” situated in the centre of a city is not by chance, and is also interpretable as the sardonic, inverted answer to the question of proximity/distance. We have returned to reality, but we are further than ever. What succeeds after this is merely discharge, the stupefied way home through the narrow streets of the “Nyolcker” (Nyolcker is the shortened name for the notorious 8th district of Budapest, with a strong presence of Roma population. A favourite target for the exotist gaze of urban explorers, more accessible than the ’Dzsumbuj ’.).

The quoted passages derive from the scripts of: Guy Debord: “Critique de la separation” (In: Oeuvres cinématographiques complétes, Paris, 1994) and László Moholy-Nagy: Filmváz. Egy nagyváros dinamikája (Film Sketch: The Dynamic of a City; http://www.c3.hu/~bbsa/catalog/moholy/dinamik). For additional information on

e-Xplo, and their previous and planned exploratory trips, see: http://www.e-xplo.org

Translated by: Adèle Eisenstein



1 La fonction du cinéma est de présenter une fausse cohérence isolée.

2 “Tout ce qui était directement vécu s’est é loigné dans une représentation.”

7. December 2004.